Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Queen's gambitSelected, for the fourth year running, as one of the annual World Book Night distributors of free books, I was sent 20 copies of Elizabeth Fremantle’s debut novel Queen’s Gambit. Not a title I personally selected, but one of the 20 available on the prescribed list.

For those not familiar with World Book Night, this annual ‘festival of reading’ began four years ago in a bid to encourage the nation (particularly reluctant readers) to read more books. And who can resist being offered a free copy of a new book? The emphasis, however, has resolutely been directed towards the reluctant reader, so the selection of titles has had to reflect the nature of the proposed readership……not too long, enjoyable and easy to read, and in a reader-friendly format.

And that is exactly what Fremantle’s first novel is……..a historical romance based on the final episode of King Henry VIII’s life, when he marries Katherine Parr, his sixth and final wife. I cannot vouch for the extent to which the author sticks to historical sources, but she claims to be largely faithful to the facts that she researched, allowing herself the freedom of the fictional literary device of filling in the gaps to create an entertaining read.

This cannot stand up to the acclaimed grandeur of Hilary Mantel’s prose but, I am sure, it was not intended to. Mantel’s fictional writing, anyway, is definitely not accessible to the masses nor, indeed, liked by everyone. I for one, am not one of her admirers, despite her Man Booker successes. Fremantle’s prose, however, is very accessible, and could prove to be a good introduction to historical fiction for those who have yet to dip the toe.

Slide presentation Thursday May 21st

Although this will be feasible for only a small minority of readers of this blog, especially for those of you who live in the East Midlands of the UK, you may be interested in the following.

I will be doing my first slide presentation of my recent End-to-End of Japan on Thursday May 21st at 6.30pm at:

Rutland Cycling (www.rutlandcycling.com), Bull Brigg Lane, Whitwell Car Park, Rutland LE15 8BL.

The story is going to include all the thrills and spills of that adventure, the huge variety of places I slept in, the gales and rain storms, the freezing temperatures in the north, the hundreds of tunnels, the accident that nearly scuppered the whole project ……and much much more.

But the kindness and generosity of the Japanese people will surpass all of the above, as will the stunning landscapes, as I travelled from the sub-tropical south to the sub-arctic north, where the skiing season was still in full swing. Come an enjoy the vicarious experience.

Hope to see you there!IMAG1259

The green lanes of home…..

When you’ve spent several weeks across the globe, ploughing a furrow from one end of a country to another, it is indeed a singular pleasure to re-discover the green and quiet lanes of home. IMAG0135

On a perfect spring morning, I headed out for my first meeting with the club and, once again, enjoyed the comradeship of miles shared along the road. There is something magical about the momentum created by a group…..compared to riding solo (which makes up the majority of my riding), your average pace can easily increase by 20-30%….but without a concomitant increase in your effort.

85 km/53 miles

85 km/53 miles

Which, of course, all goes to explain how the peloton in an elite road race will almost invariably pull back escapees who make an unrealistic bid to go it alone.

And, after several weeks of carrying 14kgs of luggage, it was good to be back on the road bike which, of course, felt pleasantly light and flighty.

And after the blossom….

And after the blossom….

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……the snowfall

Japan: closure

After flying across 9 time zones, riding more than 3000 kms and ‘sacrificing my butt’ to get a glimpse of the famous ‘sakura’ (Japanese cherry blossom), what do I find outside my own front door when I get home…….?IMAG0122

Maybe I should have really taken notice of Marcel Proust, when he said: the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. Or my own aphorism of: looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace.

But I leave you with this caption-worthy Japanese sign I passed on the tiny island of Rebun.

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Throwing drinks cans out of the car is a headache for the sea gulls?

If you have followed me on this extraordinary journey across Japan, thank you for you company. May your own wheels take you along the roads of life less travelled.

Japan in context: television

Televisual Japan
The land of the game-show, cartoons and multi-episode Samurai soaps. In the few hotel rooms I’ve stayed in, I’ve had the TV on in the background, and the sound and images emitted were invariably bright, breezy, garrulous, happy and smiling…..the emphasis is nearly always on pure light entertainment…..and everyone is happy and smiling all the time.Samurai

One of the channels, however, broadcasts a daily English lesson, with three eminently teachable ‘students’,  a knowledgeable teacher and his beautiful (American) assistant, who does all the demonstrating. Midst a lot of fun practice of plosive consonants (p,b,t…), the students were given the word ‘talk’ to pronounce…..now think about this carefully, and you’ll probably second-guess my next observation……American demonstrator? The students all wanted to say ‘talk’ (the proper English way) but the demonstrator corrected them with ‘tawk’ (or should that be ‘tark’). What is the world coming to? Don’t the Americans understand that we Brits speak English as our first language!

For Downtown Abbey fans (and I am not one), this ubiquitous series simply gets everywhere….I mean everywhere. With nothing better to do, I thought I would settle down to watch this episode on Japanese TV, but was disappointed to discover it was not subtitled, but dubbed into Japanese. So there you have it, Downtown Abbey with all the characters speaking Japanese. How did that happen in Edwardian England?Downton
I don’t know who the young lady was, but I watched her writhing in mortal agony on her bed (in Japanese, remember) and dying with prolonged convulsions, as the whole cast looked on with shocked  horror on their faces……in Japanese, of course.

And I am absolutely sure the British equal rights lobby would have a field day in Japan. Nothing to do with gender discrimination, but age discrimination. The BBC has had its knuckles rapped a few times for trying to pension off presenters (especially women presenters) in their 50s. Imagine the world without Fiona Bruce gracing our screens! In Japan, however, the vast majority of presenters and newsreaders seem to be in their 20s and, of course, with perfectly manicured features, but seldom with the personable ease that makes you, the viewer, relaxed in their company.Japan tv

But television can open a little window on the character of a nation for a passing visitor like me…

Japan in context: homes

Japanese homes: always a step up.
You don’t just enter a Japanese house, you go (or step) up into it. Every house I’ve been in has been the same: inside the front door is a little ground-level reception area, the function of which is to kick off your shoes and put on a pair of (provided) slippers. You never ever enter a home in your outdoor shoes. The step up into the house from the reception area is like a portal….it’s a gateway into the family’s domestic life, a change of elevation.

Now, for people in the western world, slippers are…..well…..just slippers. Things you put on when you get home from work for comfort about the house. For the Japanese, however, they are much more than that. There are observances which you need to know about. Let me explain…..

You may always enter a Japanese home wearing slippers, but you should never enter a tatami room with them on. Tatami rooms are usually bedrooms,

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sometimes lounges and dining rooms, where you always enter in your stockinged feet. That’s cardinal rule number 1.
Cardinal rule number 2……well, it’s back to toilet humour again, because the toilet must never be entered wearing your slippers, and certainly not in your stockinged feet. The toilet is regarded as an unhygenic place so, when you enter the toilet, you put on the toilet slippers, which will be just inside the door.

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And don’t forget to take them off before you leave.
The first domestic toilet I used happened to be a man’s urinal closet (most unusual), and when I opened the door, there were the slippers waiting for me to step into them. I couldn’t believe the fuss being made about stepping in and out of the little room, but…….there you have it……..only in Japan.

The nett result of all this is that, if you are a slipper manufacturer or importer in Japan, you will never be short of business. And because Japanese people are generally shorter and smaller than westerners like me, I have yet to find a pair of slippers that actually fit me.

You can also expect some rooms to be almost furniture-less. The first lounge-diner I entered had no more than a typical Japanese low level dining table with a few cushions on the floor. And yes, you have to get used to sitting at floor level to eat at such tables. Very un-western, but you quickly get used to it.

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And the bathroom will usually be designed as a ‘wet room’, with a small deep bathtub for soaking, and a wet shower area next to it. The idea is to shower first, then soak in the bath tub….making sure you don’t take soap suds into the bath, because someone may come after you to have a soak in the same water.
Remember those days when you shared the same bathwater with a kid brother or sister? Just like that….but without the bath bubbles and the rubber duck….. :)

Japan in context: Language skills

English as a foreign language
I’ve already had a bit of a ‘rant’ about the lack of English amongst Japan’s tourist information staff. 95% of the staff in the 25-30 information offices I have visited, up and down the country, had no foreign language credentials. Don’t you find this strange? I certainly do.
(I add as an addendum here that, apart from 2 or 3 cities, I have not been travelling through tourist hotspots like Tokyo and Osaka, where some of the TI staff will certainly speak English. But I have passed through many large cities and towns).

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I have always believed that the UK was probably the world’s worst developed country for foreign language proficiency……but no, Japan (I think) beats us hands down on that score. In the UK there is no policy to teach just one single language. It could be one (or two) of several within the EU. In Japan, however, English is the number one language in the schools’ curricula…..and for obvious reasons. So everyone (and I do mean absolutely everyone) will study English for a minimum of 6 years, and most of those who go on to university, will continue for another 3-4 years.

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Thinking back to my own teaching days, I would have been very disappointed if my students didn’t have a reasonable degree of confidence in their communication skills after only 3 years of study, let alone 6, or even 10, years. After 5 years of study, I would have expected my advanced level students to have a mature grasp of the language, and be able to communicate at an adult level. So, what’s the difference?

Quizzing a few people about language learning in Japan, I discovered that their teaching method may be still rooted in the ‘grammar/translation’ style, which we discarded back in the 1970s, and Japanese students seldom move beyond a proficiency in only reading and writing. I know I’m going to be corrected on this by people who know better, but this is the message I have picked up over the last 6 weeks, and it has been confirmed time and time again by different people.

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But perhaps there is another powerful, historic, reason why Japan only speaks Japanese, has no foreign satellite TV, no foreign press, sells very little (if any) foreign language literature, even in their big book stores….I suspect it is a kind of genetic inheritance from the 2 centuries of self-imposed isolation in the 17-19th centuries, when Japan literally closed its shores to all foreign visitors…..and those that evaded expulsion from Japan, were arrested and many summarily executed…..including the crucifixion of some Christians.

Like Britain, Japan is an island nation….and you may read that as meaning ‘fortress nation’…built on a long history of self defence, of keeping the barbarians at bay.

The Japan I have personally discovered, however,  has moved on a long way from those days. The people I have encountered have been open, kind, generous to the point of embarrassment…..they are a very gentle, smiling, welcoming people who have made my venture of cycling the length of their country an absolute pleasure. And the many many times they have apologised profusely for their poor command English (and I for my minimal knowledge of Japanese)…..that in itself has enhanced the charm of their character as a nation.
You can’t help but love them……

Postscript
As I was finishing this post, sitting in Wakkanai airport, waiting for the first of three flights, the three ANA staff, who had showered me with noodle meals and biscuits a few days ago, came up to see me in the departure lounge, bubbling with excitement, carrying what was obviously a bag of gifts. They excitedly waited for me to open the bag, and out came a variety of gifts,

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all locally made and handcrafted, including what look like kerchiefs with samurai motif, a fan and chopsticks…..and one of them said “For your wife?”. Along with these was a personally drawn greeting/farewell card, with a map of my route through Japan,

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and a personally written message from each of them, along with a photo of themselves which they took out on the concourse just minutes before.
I include this PS with this post because most of our (very imperfect) communication has taken place via Google Translate on an iPad.
This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in the real world…..

Japan in context: tunnels

Tunnels in Japan
I’ve never been a fan of cycling through tunnels. I’ve had some hair-raising experiences in the past. Japan, however, has put me much more at ease……..

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probably more through repetition than anything else, because in the last 5 weeks, I must have easily quadrupled the number of tunnels I’ve cycled through in my lifetime……some 250 in Japan alone, the longest nearly 3 km. (My lifetime longest was over 10 km in the Italian Dolomites). If you’re worried about tunnels in general, Japanese tunnels are generally cyclist-friendly. They frequently have a side-walk, sometimes a dedicated tunnel for cyclists and pedestrians,(as in this one below)

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are nearly always lit to some degree, and will nearly always tell you the length before you enter.
However, if tunnels are really not your thing, be aware of the following:
1. The road inside tunnels is not always flat. Nice when it’s going downhill, but a pain if it goes uphill.
2. Traffic noise is amplified tenfold, and can be very scary at first. What may sound like a ten ton truck may, in fact, be a little Daihatsu. What may sound as if it’s a tornado breezing up your backside may, in fact, be coming from the front. Whatever you do, and however you feel, hold rigidly to your position on the road. It’s much safer than cowering in the gutter. One Japanese cyclist told me he would always cycle down the middle of the road….I’m not recommending that, but I can appreciate his reasoning….

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3. Wind…….If the wind is in your face when you enter a tunnel, it will continue in your face inside the tunnel, but be twice as strong. Why? Well, I’m sure physicists can explain this much more eloquently than me,  but I call it the ‘tunnel-funnel effect’. The great thing is that, when you eventually emerge into the daylight, what you thought had been a strong wind outside the tunnel, suddenly feels light and manageable. You might just stop complaining about it…..though that’s unlikely.
4. And finally, if the lighting gives out in the middle of a tunnel, it is very difficult (indeed impossible) to ride in a straight line. Best to get off the bike immediately and walk. Once you are plunged into pitch darkness, you lose the lateral visual parameters that help you keep in a straight line.

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Japanese tunnels have taught me one thing: the easiest way to the other side of the mountain is……..well, not surprisingly, through the mountain itself. So tunnels should really be a cause for celebration……shouldn’t they?

Japan in context: food

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As I prepare to leave the land of the rising sun, I’d like to share some reflections, in the next few posts, on things Japanese, as seen through the eyes of a first-time visitor, and someone who has sped his way from one end of the country to the other.
Food in Japan
I have to say that I have developed a taste for Japanese food, and my gut has handled it very well for the duration of this journey. Rice and noodles are the universal staples, bulking out every meal, even breakfast. But the common denominator at breakfast is something called ‘miso’, a soup that seems to have seaweed and tofu as its ingredients.

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Above: scallop, miso and green tea
But I have to admit that some of the time I have little idea of what I’m eating, especially when buying in convenience stores. In the EU, we are used to food labelling in several languages. In Japan, it’s only in Japanese. As a result, I’ve been guilty of a few ‘faux pas’. The bread rolls I bought to go with sardines had chocolate spread in them. A carton of what looked like apple juice was, in fact, cold green tea. A small plain baguette turned out to be a jam sandwich….and the list goes on.

In restaurants I’ve been in, the menus have been invariably written only in Japanese, and normally without the useful little pictures that can give away important clues. And when you are presented with a tray of several little bowls of food,

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most of which are a complete mystery, and then look over at the condiments and think you can identify the soy sauce (but another sauce looks decidedly similar), and then wonder how they should be applied. One thing is for certain, never put soy sauce on your rice……why? Your rice will lose its stickiness and you’ll never be able to scoop it up with your chopsticks.

I have spent several hours observing Japanese people managing their food at the table, and they do a lot of scooping and slurping.  Indeed, the greatest pleasure to be had out of eating noodles, apparently, is in the slurping. A chap near my table once slurped so persistently and loudly, he would have been given a ‘yellow card’ in an English restaurant. Next offence…..and out!

I suppose a summit in the experience of Japanese food is reached when you have sampled, and survived, ‘sashimi’ (raw fish). You may remember down in Kyushu, a young tourist agent and his boss took me to a sashimi restaurant,

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and I had to take a deep breath before diving in with the chopsticks. It was good….I enjoyed it. It would never be my first choice, but I would certainly repeat the experience.
Have I missed any favourite dishes from home? Most certainly, I have. But then, after all, home is where your comfort zone is. Isn’t it?

Japan day 38

Japan day 38
Rishri-Wakkanai (by ferry)
Now I know thousands are anxious to know where I slept last night….well, read that as 2 or 3….but a fellow cyclist has ribbed me about giving cyclists a bad name by ‘dossing’. (He could remain nameless, but let’s have some fun….you’ll find his comment tagged on to the end of the last post… :) ). So let me address the issue of ‘stealth sleeping’ or ‘free camping’.

Cyclists are well known for being ‘careful guardians of their money’….meaning, of course, that they like “owt for nowt”…..some would say unceremoniously ‘tight b*****s’. But dossing in Britain is not quite the same as dossing here in Japan. Most of my choices on this trip have been carefully chosen ‘up-market’ locations, such as shrines and temples, park gardens, marinas, lakesides, even the odd ferry terminal. Now, the fact that I slept in a bus shelter last night might seem to have tipped the balance of my choices irretrievably downwards. But not so…… Let me explain.

I know a lot of British cyclists who have slept in bus shelters, especially on Audax long-distance events. They do it for convenience, to grab a few hours of rest before continuing their ride (which could be anything from a 24-90 hour event).
Now think of the typical British bus shelter……it may have a roof, but one or two sides will be open to the elements; it will have a concrete or dirt floor; it will probably be covered with graffiti; there will be cigarette butts, sweet wrappers and even dog poo on the floor, if not evidence of boozers emptying their bladders before climbing on the bus. To sleep in a British bus shelter is what I call “dossing on a budget”. There are better, and free, places to sleep.
Now, the Japanese bus shelter is quite different, especially in the north, where they experience some weather….I think you know what I mean. I showed this one in a previous post

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…..brick built, closeable door, completely weather-proof and clean inside. The one I slept in last night was not quite so sturdily built, but it had a bench seat, clean wooden floor (even a dustpan and brush in the corner), and here is the clincher…..it had double french doors that not only closed, but actually locked from the inside.

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Because it measured about 3×1.5 metres, it fitted not only me, but all my clobber, and the bike inside. I bedded down about 7.30pm, an hour after sunset, and I wasn’t disturbed the whole night. And I made sure I had left well before the first bus at 7.04am the next morning….

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In the league of bus shelter dossing, this is definitely 5*. And given that the gale force winds continued throughout the night, sometimes rocking the whole fabric of the shelter, I was comfortable, warm and safe…..and I slept surprisingly well.

Do I do this just to save money? No, not at all. I can afford hotel rooms. So why do it?
I have to say there is something very satisfying about going back to basics. It’s only the consumer, business orientated world we live in that appears to set the norm of where people should sleep at night when not at home….ie. that it should be inside, have a comfortable bed, perhaps with ensuite and fluffy towels, and a kettle for making tea….. Sleeping, in fact, is just a basic bodily need, and it can be done anywhere that’s dry and warm. Isn’t it good to remind ourselves that this can be done without all the ‘bells and whistles’ of paid accommodation? Why should there be a monetary value placed on a basic human function?
Why should skateboarding, playing frisbee or walking the dog be seen as acceptable activities in a park, and not sleeping? As you can see, I’m on a roller here, so I won’t tax your patience further on this….

But, if you have never tried sleeping free or wild, whether it be in the country or in the city, whether it be under the stars or under cover….pluck up some courage and do it. Some of the very best experiences on this trip (and I could name many) have been sleeping free. Many times they have led to meeting people, sharing friendship and being showered with spontaneous generosity. And none of it would have happened in hotels.

I rest my case.

Japan days 36 & 37

Japan days 36 & 37
Rishiri & Rebun Islands 150km
When the job is done and you start feeling de-mob happy, it’s always good to have a ‘digestif’ at the end of the feast of cycling. Heading over to Rishiri & Rebun Islands for a couple of days got me back on the bike, but not with the intensity of purpose of the long haul ride. It was a bit of purely recreational cycling, scooting along coastal roads, through countless fishing villages where kelp was hanging out to dry, and nipping along spits of land to get to a variety of capes, all with their own panoramic view
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…but what I was not quite prepared for was the majestic dominance of the snow-covered Mt Rishiri

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…that soared upwards from the centre of the island to a height of nearly 1,800 metres. Wherever you go on the island, it is there, brooding, refusing to shed its winter coat (some of which never melts), defying you to come and climb its slopes.

On the ferry between the two islands, a man sitting near me asked a few of the usual questions, then got up and disappeared. Five minutes later he presented me with a little bag, with a chocolate spread bun and a can of iced coffee
….the surprises just don’t stop coming.

When it came to choosing somewhere to sleep on the first night, I was determined to do a bit of stealth sleeping (comfortable hotels had been ruining me….), and when I passed a remote shrine with Mt Rishiri in the background, I was very tempted, everything about its situation was perfect, but….. it was several kms from a food source. In the end, I found this log cabin which served as a park information centre, all closed up for the winter but, surprisingly left  unlocked

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…overlooking the raging seas as the wind speeds dramatically increased during the night…and with Mt Rishiri providing the backdrop, I couldn’t believe my luck that I could sleep in relative warmth and comfort in the lower slopes of this mighty mountain.
In the morning, I thought I’d creep away unnoticed, but I’d forgotten about the early morning exercisers. At 5.30 a man climbed up to the cabin, peered in and, when he saw me, grinned and nodded his head in acknowledgement.
When I checked my emails at the local onsen I had used the previous day, my BBC weather app told me winds were going to increase in speed to 50mph (80kph), but when I set off to complete the circular tour of the island, I had the wind behind me….. little did I care about the strength of the wind….
Complacent that everything would be fine, I took a diversion and headed into the interior, up the mountain, passing well into the snow zone

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….until the road deteriorated into a dirt track heading for the summit. When I turned to go back down, the descent was so fast I had to stop to tighten up the brakes before I could feel certain about letting myself merrily go …it almost felt I was on a ski run as I hurtled back down the mountain to the coast.
That was when the truth of the forecast hit me full in the face….the winds dramatically increased in speed, pulling me off the bike completely, sending my helmet cover flying across the road, and even preventing me from standing upright holding onto the bike. I had to take shelter……and wait for lulls in the storm before proceeding. I had 10km to get back to the ferry port, but I only got there through a mixture of cycling and walking…….the irony being, the last few hundred metres of my cycling in Japan were actually concluded on foot! The shame of it….
As I looked for somewhere to sleep tonight on the island, I was much amused by this…..

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……not many metres from a highly ‘desireable’ bus shelter that could make an excellent bedroom…..check out the next post…. :)

Japan day 35

Japan day 35
Wakkanai
A day for sorting important practicalities…..like getting the bike back home. I always rely on a local bike shop at destination giving me a box that they would otherwise throw away. I also needed to visit the local airport to smooth the way for the carriage of this large package on a small internal flight….which could be no more than a prop-shaft puddle-jumper.
I followed the signs to the airport, fully expecting to find a few cabins and a grass runway at this frontier town (only joking, of course!) but I was astonished to find that it not only had a full control tower,

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but I walked into an ultra-modern little terminal to be greeted by two smiling check-in girls, wearing their brand new ANA uniforms, waiting to serve…….well, to tell you the truth, absolutely no-one…..I was the only person in the entire departure lounge…..and looking at flight departures on the screen, they probably only have 2/3 flights a day anyway.
When I walked in wearing multi-coloured lycra, I was definitely the entertainment of the day. They jumped out of their lethargy, found a colleague in the back office who had some rudimentary English, and we spent a little while discussing airline policies regarding bikes (and I had done my homework….company policies differ, and I was flying with three different airlines, but the BA policy should take precedence on these connecting flights, being the principal long-haul flight, and they allow bikes up to 23kg free of charge).

Once we had got that sorted, out of the blue, I was asked if I liked Japanese food, and did I know how to use chopsticks…well, of course, I said ‘yes’ to everything, then suddenly one of them disappeared into the back office, and came back bearing gifts…..two packs of ready-made noodle meals and a packet of biscuits. I was unprepared for this….so unprepared I forgot to politely refuse several times……

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(photo for illustration only…not the actual girls).

I now have this memory of three prettily uniformed check-in staff, standing at the door of the airport, waving me off. I don’t remember this ever happening at Heathrow or Gatwick…..let alone even receiving common courtesies from Ryanair check-in staff.

Then to the Togawa bike shop, about a bike box….I wondered if they had received my badly Google-translated letter I had sent a few weeks before my departure from the UK.

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When I arrived, I was greeted by the husband and wife team, tried to explain my purpose and, within a few seconds, he disappeared into the back shop….only to re-appear a few seconds later clutching my letter. I looked at it, nodded my recognition, and saw he had annotated it extensively….I think I’d had my homework corrected!

He scampered up the stairs, and came down holding the box he had specially put aside for me……and it looked like the very dimensions I had asked for. I thought yet again…”only in Japan”. I asked them to hold it for another few days, thanked them profusely, and left.

Practicalities sorted, I headed up the hill to visit this shrine

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…which was obviously dedicated to a deity overseeing warrior archers, or hunters

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….then I continued the climb for another 100 metres, past freely roaming deer

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to yet another hill-top park, this time with monuments honouring the sacrifices made during the war with Russia, and the loss of what is now Sakhalin Island.

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The most memorable sacrifice for the Japanese people was the heroism of the ‘nine maidens’, who kept the telephone systems operating until they couldn’t escape from the invading Russians. To avoid capture, they all took potassium cyanide….which moved the Emperor to write a poem in their honour.

I may have joked a little about this being frontier territory, but it really is. Northern Hokkaido is overshadowed by the proximity of two super-powers: Russia and China, and throughout recent history, there has been a lot of bad blood between Japan and these giant neighbours.

And so tomorrow….to the islands of Rishri and Rebun….and the forecast is encouraging…amazingly!

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Japan day 34

Japan day 34
Wakkanai-Cape Soya-Wakkanai 77km
Wakkanai has that feeling of a town at the end of the line. Though it lacks nothing in terms of modernity, it’s evident that nobody passes through here on their way to somewhere else…..unless, of course, you’re a daft cyclist on your way to Cape Soya. In the summer, there will certainly be a steady flow of travellers heading out to Ristri and Rebun, two islands to the north west that I will visit before I leave. But today’s brief was to finish this Cape-to-Cape journey, some 32km to the NE, and still with the favourable wind of yesterday. But this sortie out to Cape Soya had a return journey to Wakkanai…..in other words, a day of mixed feelings about the wind. (Now some of you may be wondering why this man doesn’t just catch a bus back to Wakkanai……well you obviously don’t know me well enough…..I really am that stupid…. :(
I’m sure you already know that End-to-End rides are all about earning a ‘gong’ at the end….but the only ‘gong’ awaiting you is not a reception committee waving flags and throwing streamers, but simply to have your photo taken at the finishing line

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……thank the person who kindly took the photo (in this case a young Japanese couple who wanted to have their photo taken with me……ah, the problems of celebrity!) and go and find yourself a coffee (or something stronger) to celebrate.
Well, I looked around and couldn’t see anything that might serve me coffee, or anything else for that matter. In fact, during this down-period between the winter and summer seasons, businesses go into hibernation. I headed up the high street of this tiny frontier village….everywhere was lifeless…..except for a tiny food store.
Watching out for empty boxes on the floor (bad joke!), I went in, purchased a pot noodle, asked the lady to fill it with hot water, and prepared to head outside to eat it when…..(and here comes another ‘only in Japan’ moment)…the lady said something I didn’t understand, but her body language implied I could go through to their house and eat in some warmth and comfort, sitting at their kitchen table.
Now remember, in the shop I was just a paying customer, sitting in her kitchen I suddenly became her guest (change of status)…..so along with my pot noodle, she served me some sweet omelette, made me a cup of coffee…..and when I left she gave me one of the gift pens from her shop. I was touched. And she then did the very Japanese thing of waving me off, until I had disappeared around the corner.
In a memorial park nearby, with commanding views of the Cape,

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there were a variety of monuments, amongst them this memorial to the sinking of the American submarine Wahoo SS 238 in 1943, which had been responsible for destroying a lot of Japanese shipping, killing hundreds.

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The memorial, however, is dedicated to the dead on both sides…..a post-war gesture that bids to nurture permanent peace between the two countries.

And for those who like a few post-ride statistics: I originally estimated this to be a 3000km ride between the two Capes, but I have personally clocked up 3074km, some of it additional because of sight-seeing, going off route….etc.
At my average pace of 120-130km per day, excluding all sight-seeing and stopovers, as a straight ride it would take just four weeks to complete. And if you want a little more warmth and less wind, (but you’d miss the cherry blossom), May would be a better month. By the time you get to Hokkaido in late May/early June, the campsites would likely be open, and the weather more pleasantly warm.

However, my journey is not quite over yet. After a rest day tomorrow, I’ll catch a ferry, and spend a couple of nights on the remote islands of Ristri and Rebun, as I did on Stewart Island, at the finish of my End-to-End of New Zealand two years ago.
Ristri has a Mt Fuji look-alike volcano dominating the entire circular island, and both islands (because of their Siberian aspect) have a high alpine climate, even at sea level. Certainly not time to be ‘casting the clouts’ yet!

Japan day 33

Japan day 33
Rumoi-Wakkanai 190km/118 miles
Monster day, monster mileage…..how did that happen? It certainly wasn’t planned…..
I’ve noticed a pattern in my last few treks, especially last year in Turkey, when the last two days are sometimes compressed into one mega-day, and I get to my destination a day earlier than planned. I know it has something to do with the psychology of reaching the finishing line, but today the weather played a huge role.
I climbed on the bike at 8.30am and, apart from a handful of refreshment stops, I stayed on it until 6pm, frequently achieving speeds of 50-60kph, and generally cruising between 25-30kph. Cyclists, like sailors, will always take full advantage of a ‘fair wind’

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and, today, I had a very strong south-westerly breezing up my left flank. Japan has thrown a lot of strong headwinds at me on this journey, and today it seemed to be acknowledging the efforts of this mad ‘gaijin’ to get his job done, and move on…..

The route hugged the coast for more than 120km and, instead of rain, I was accompanied by the angry rollers of the sea,

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throwing its spray at me, misting up my glasses…..but no map reading needed today….one road, one direction, and a wind pushing from behind. It was exhilarating…fast……almost addictive…..even better than the contents of one of those mysterious little bottles.

The nett result is that I am now one full day ahead of my schedule, Cape Soya is now only 32km/20 miles away and, not having used any of the flexi-days (extra days allowed for mechanicals, sickness or unavoidable delays), it gives me the opportunity to head out to the two remote islands of Rishiri and Rebun, lying off to the west of Hokkaido.

But when I entered Wakkanai this evening, the most northerly town in Japan, I was reminded of the proximity of the Sakhalin Islands, islands which belong to Russia, but have been a bone of contention for many years. The fact that a regular ferry runs between the islands, and Japan has deigned to include Russian Cyrillic in its signs,
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is more than tacit acknowledgement of the relative permanence of the situation.

And as I write these few lines, the weather forecast for today fully corroborates my decision to make a mad dash for the finishing line…..

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because the outlook for tomorrow has a very different complexion…..not just rain, but winds that could reach 65kph, and not in my favour on the return leg….

And as I looked out of my 8th floor window this morning at 5am, the ‘solar barometer’ tells me this is the day for getting to the Cape….

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See you there….

Japan day 32

Japan day 32
Iwamizawa-Romoi 117 km
As I write this, ‘suffering in extremis’ after a long relaxing hot spring, I have just studied the map to calculate the remaining journey to Cape Soya……and my calculation is about 210km (130 miles). I am slightly ahead of my schedule, and with the weather forecast being promising for the next few days, there is every incentive to make a mad dash, and get there a day before anticipated……and the day before rain is anticipated once again.
The final stretch will follow the Sea of Japan coast (north west coast of the island) and that will basically take me to Wakkanai, the most northerly town in Japan, just 32km short of the Cape. If the Cape gave off a scent, I reckon I’d be able to smell it from here.
As I was nearing the end of my route today, I began thinking about where to spend the night. Paid accommodation or stealth camping? With night time temperatures hovering just above freezing, I ruled the latter out immediately. But when I passed this remarkable little bus shelter, with its own closeable door…

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…looking like a desireable piece of real estate in its own right, I was sorely tempted…….but it was 30km short of my target for the day.
But a good reason for turning down the bus shelter became apparent as I crossed the mountains to get to the coast….

Hokkaido could as easily be a part of Siberia as Japan, and the slowly receding winter snows gave a penetrating chill to the air, even when the sun was shining.

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And that chill at night time would be even more pronounced. I would be expecting too much of my 2 season sleeping bag, which only has a comfort tolerance down to 5C degrees.

As a complete ‘non sequitur’, and only because I have seen tens of thousands of these on my journey, I present to you the shape of the most popular little car in Japan…

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….snub-nosed and rated 0 for road tax. When you see one pass by, it looks just like a box on wheels……which is what it is, basically.

And at the other end of the spectrum, Japan has been celebrating, what I understand to be, a new world speed record on the railtracks.

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This screenshot shows a speed of 603 kph (about 370 mph)…..getting closer and closer to the speed of a jet plane.
And can anyone tell me what this little contraption is for? It was one of the several freebies in the hotel room.

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Japan day 31

Japan day 31
Sapporo-Iwamazawa 42 km
As I was entering Sapporo city yesterday, my eye caught this sign

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and, beyond recognising the fact that the pointing figure was obviously an important man of the past (and a westerner), I had no idea about the relevance of the caption. My immediate reaction was (and girls, let me be your champion here…..) what about the girls? Don’t they have a right to be ambitious?
When Hokkaido opened up to the world and began to modernise everything about its way of life, William Smith Clark, an American agricultural expert, was invited to help in the foundation of the agricultural college, which eventually became Hokkaido University. He became the pioneering force behind a revolution in agricultural practices in the late 19th century, and he is now much revered here in Hokkaido.
One of the many changes to occur was the introduction of hop growing, which led to the brewing of Japan’s first beer, now the famous and legendary beer of Sapporo. And I can tell you, I’ve checked out the Sapporo beers the entire length of Japan (in moderation, of course), and they are pretty good.
To buy a can, I would invariably go into a ‘conbini’ (convenience store) which, like vending machines, are everywhere…..all identical in shape and size, all selling the same range of products, all with toilets, recycle bins and dedicated smoking areas outside, and all with a mysterious range of small bottled drinks.

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Over the weeks, I’ve watched (principally) men come and go, buy them, drink them in one go……and leave. I had my suspicions as to what they were, but not being able to read the labels, I was never quite sure, and I didn’t venture to sample any in case the were remedies for bed-wetting, erectile dysfunction, constipation or premature hair loss……or any other unmentionables.

I am now informed (by my English hosts last night) that amongst them there are energy drinks, pick-me-ups, things to cure bad hangovers and to help prevent them in the first place. A few little bottles before a heavy drinking session may mean being able to function normally at work the next day. But the problem is…..I still don’t know which one to choose!

Talking of my hosts last night, Andy and Clare are amongst the very few English people I have met on this journey, and they form part of that extensive community of English teachers who work in High Schools, under a special government programme that supplies native speakers to classrooms across the country.

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The have lived in Hokkaido for more than 5 years, are now thoroughly versed in the Japanese way of life and, over an exceptional curry (made by the man of the house, of course!), I learned much about what it’s like to be westerners living in Japan.
They have obviously loved their time here, otherwise they wouldn’t have stayed so long, and relished the opportunity to travel throughout the country, sometimes by bike…….and being skiing enthusiasts, Hokkaido has been the perfect base for getting onto the slopes. So perfect a base for skiing and other country sports, Andy is planning on setting up a tour-guiding business in the future, promoting Hokkaido as a premier resort for Europeans. Check out his current website :www.ezopow.com
But before any of that happens, they have to get back to the UK…..and I think you’ve probably guessed they are not going to do it the conventional way, a 12 hour BA flight to London…….no, they will probably take 18 months to get back home, riding their bikes and camping their way through much of Asia, the ‘Stans, Iran, Turkey and through Europe, before settling back to some kind of ‘normal life’ on the Sussex coast.
It’s an exciting venture. They have only a few months to plan it, but the kit is being acquired feverishly in preparation, and visa entry requirements for each country are being sorted.
Thanks guys for hosting me, and may the prevailing wind be ever at your backs!

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Japan day 30

Japan day 30
Tomakomai-Sapporo 88 km
In the closing stages of my journey from Cape Sata to Cape Soya, thinking there are few surprises remaining beyond reaching my goal, having the end-of-journey photos taken, catching my plane and going home. This complacent mindset, however, was to be rudely disabused. Last night, I spent an astonishing evening in the company of veteran and would-be world travellers. Warmshowers continues draw new, and inspiring, people into my trek to the northernmost cape. Which in itself provides the spur to keep those pedals turning.

Although today’s journey was, on paper, a relative ‘stroll in the park’ compared to previous days, Hokkaido was showing its characteristic stern benevolence: sunshine to lift the spirits, but a bitterly cold headwind that was blowing straight across from Siberia. It was one of those ‘head down, grit your teeth and just get on with the job’ days. You know the sort of day you often get at work…..you long for the end of the day, and when it comes, you are suddenly visited by a new burst of energy. My new burst of energy came in the form of meeting my hosts for the night.
Ken (Kenichi) came out to meet me with his young daughter Aki, on their bikes, to guide me to their house. There I met Hsiuhsia, his wife from Taiwan, ushered into the house, taken to my room, and then there began to unfold an evening that turned into an astonishing journey around the world. I was in the company of veteran world travellers who had taken time out of their lives to do some serious travelling on bicycles.

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Some 14 years ago, Ken started a journey that lasted 4 years, taking him more than 55,000 km around the globe.

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Hsiuhsia joined him whenever her work life permitted until, one day, she was made redundant and, sad though that was, it provided the perfect opportunity for her to join Ken on a more permanent basis.
Since then, they have become long-standing Warmshowers hosts, welcoming a huge variety of cyclists from around the world into their home.

The supper last night was not just a feast of food, but a feast of stories and memories, shared with two other friends, Aya and Shigeo

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who, separately, will be embarking on their own world travels as ‘newbies’ in long-distance cycling.

The conversation was ‘wall-to-wall’ reminiscences about the past, dreams about the future and, in the case of Shigeo (who expects to start his 6 year journey in June), the practicalities of buying and kitting out his bike.
I could say so much more about the enthusiasm of these people, confirmed by the many and varied images of bikes around the house, and the ultimate homage to the world of cycling of keeping bikes stored in the bedroom.

Well, that’s the ‘burden’ of the multiple bike owner…..where do you keep them all?

Japan day 29

Japan day 29
Oshamanbe-Tomakomai 146 km
Never knowingly in my life, not even as a sweet burbling infant in my mother’s arms, have I been known to sleep continuously for 9 hours. But I did last night on my futon. Nature’s response to yesterday? I sleepily dragged myself up from the floor-level mattress, prodded my leg, put my weight on it gingerly and……yes it seemed to be working OK, though still a bit painful. And it seemed to endure my customary morning yoga stretching…..so we were in business.
The dinner and breakfast I had at the ryokan were fulsome and nutritious….and very Japanese…..rice with everything, and lots of little bowls filled with mysterious things. All veritable journeys of discovery.

If yesterday’s route was the journey from hell, today’s was a blessing from heaven. Dawn broke with the sun shining and the winds light. And this man was ready for business once again.

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So would this man make up the deficit from yesterday?

Although a mainly flat route hugging the coast, there was a big climb at the 10km point, that took me to above 500 metres (1600 feet), then riding at elevation with lots of climbing and descending for the next 20km, before hurtling back down to the coast. And thank goodness the snow chains weren’t required.

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There was a special layby for vehicles to pull over and fit their snow chains before attempting the pass. All the while I mused on what the conditions on this pass had been like yesterday, when I should have been climbing it. Raining at sea level, but what was it doing at 500 metres? It was surely providence, in the guise of an untimely accident, that had kept me from attempting it yesterday.
The average pace was fast, completing the 146km (91 miles) by 4pm, which happily included the deficit from yesterday.

When I got to Tomakomai, I went straight to Information and explained clearly (in English) that I wanted a hotel with hot spring. The two ladies at the desk immediately jumped to attention, there was animated activity for several minutes, leaflets were brought out, but communication once again was conducted on the PC via Google Translate, and getting the detail correct was a huge hurdle for them. With or without breakfast/shower/hot spring/smoking or non-smoking…. Once we got a hotel booked, one of them typed into Google Translate, and came up with: “I sorry for my no English”.

In the hotel, wearing the ‘fetching’ yukata to go up to the onsen on the top floor

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…..I headed up to the 9th floor, and carefully studied the dos and donts of using the onsen

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……and made sure I didn’t brush my teeth, or dye my hair in the pool, or fall asleep in the hallway…..and how anyone can contemplate swimming in a pool that’s no more than 10×6 feet…..well, it’s a stretch of the imagination.
And yes, I did ‘enjoy at hot spring’.

Japan day 28

Japan day 28
Mori-Oshamanbe 62 km
Now I know some of you have a low boredom threshold with travelogues like these, especially if everything appears to be going to plan. Newspapers can’t sell copy if all they report is good news. We’d all much rather hear about failure than success, even though we might not admit it openly. So, as a pre-amble to the next few minutes of your reading, there were a few minutes this morning when my attempt to reach Cape Soya might have had to be abandoned. Imagine the front page headline: Frank Burns’ epic ride in the balance. Read on……

I left the ryokan early, grabbed some breakfast at a nearby 7/11, checked emails, and headed off for the very manageable 100 km ride to Toyoura. I knew it was along the very busy Route 5, but……..and this was almost unbelievable, once again I had a strong tailwind. Buddha has forgiven me, I thought. For the first 20 km, I was making such fast progress that I thought I’d finish the ride by midday. Then there were spots of rain……then the road turned so that it became a crosswind, all the while gaining in strength.

Now you may think you know where this is going. That I’ve decided to wimp out, turn round and go home with tail between my legs. Well, of course, you are wrong. But if I were to tell you I had had an accident…….

Now I understand that you might assume that to be a cycling accident…… Anyone who is riding 3000 km in a foreign land is likely to have a few cycling-related incidents. But no, it wasn’t even cycling-related.

Route 5 is a very long, desolate, exposed highway with very few services along the way. With my battle against the crosswind and the rain, I had to stop at a tiny food store, both to escape the elements and to get some food and coffee. I was pretty desperate…. The owner was busy restocking his shelves and, believe it or not, that was the “juggernaut” that was hurtling down the road in my direction. As I turned a corner while browsing his shelves, I tripped on an empty box and came crashing down against one of his units. So heavily did I fall that I thought for a few minutes I had done myself a serious mischief. I felt the impact, perversely, on the leg that is held together with pin and plate.

The good news is I was able to get up and walk (though limping) from the scene, but had to get myself a coffee and sit on some empty crates to allow the shock to subside. As I gazed out at the growing fury of the storm, I had to calculate my options.

The next town, Oshamanbe, was 25 km away, so I decided to declare war on this wretched weather and just go for it. Whatever I have said in the past about any other ride being the worst of my life, it has now been replaced by those 25 km. It was unbelievably bad. Absolutely no redeeming features about it. The wind was intent on sweeping me into the ditch, and passing trucks simply drenched me with their spray.

I eventually squelched into the train station at Oshamanbe, started stripping outer layers off in the waiting room, and was asked by two ladies if everything was OK. One of those ladies was German, but a fluent Japanese speaker (married to a Japanese man), and she helped me find a ryokan at the information counter.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I learned that all ryokans in this town have their own onsens. When you are very cold and very wet, and your leg has taken a battering from a fall…..there surely can’t be anything more inviting on this earth than soaking in a 44 degree C thermal pool. If there is, let me know about it.

So, the bottom line is: I am 40 km short of my target today. Is that critical to the final outcome? The answer is definitely ‘no’. The shortfall can be made up with a bit of juggling.

So, that was my day. How was yours?

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