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?

Japan day 27

Japan day 27
Hakodate-Mori 123 km
One of the great things about cycling is that it is a great leveller. Even more so when you are travelling long distance on your own. It levels out social, economic, ethnic and generational differences to a degree that you find yourself making friends with people that wouldn’t normally feature in your circle of contacts.
That is what happened yesterday. My host, via Warmshowers, was Hiroaki,

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a marine biology undergraduate at Hakodate University, now in his final year, but also a cyclist (the proud owner of a 30 year old classic Japanese road bike) who has the distinction of having ridden some 20,000 km across Canada and the USA. He sheepishly admitted to carrying far too much luggage, to the extent that the frame of his bike broke under the strain!
He expertly cooked a great pasta dish for our supper, I slept on my Thermarest on the floor of his tiny bedsit, and for breakfast we enjoyed toast and coffee together….. characteristically very un-Japanese from this well travelled, and linguistically fluent, young man. He welcomed me graciously into his life for 12 hours, and I thoroughly enjoyed his company, and learned many things about Japan and its people.

(His field of research, by the way, is ‘crabs’. So what brings together a retired teacher and a young marine biologist studying crabs?……the answer , of course, is cycling……the great leveller).

If I were to go north to Cape Soya directly, I could be there in 5-6 days, but it would mean climbing to levels of elevation where cycling could be very tricky, and even dangerous. Not to mention the bitter cold of the slowly receding winter.
Also, Hokkaido happens to be the most beautiful and unspoilt of the four islands, where the brown bear still survives, and where most of the landmass is officially designated National Park.
This is the island where there are still vestiges of the ancient Ainu people, who were the original settlers, but whose existence was only officially recognised by the government 7 years ago.

In other words, it’s not my intention to make a dash for Soya, but to take in some of the peninsulas and capes, as I thread my way north.
Today’s route was superb….both because the first 50 km were wind assisted, and it took me around the cape where the famous smoking volcano, Mt Esan, is located.

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The coastal road around the entire peninsula was ‘pitted’ with dozens of tunnels, one over 1.5 miles in length

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and another ominously narrow, with no sidewalk ……but there was so little traffic, I began to wonder if I had left Japan altogether.

All along the coastline, there are constant reminders of the dangers of tsunamis

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and advisory signs telling you your current height above sea level.I found myself constantly gazing out to sea…..and not just to admire the views!

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When I got to Mori, I decided I was done for the day, there was only an hour to sunset, and the temperature was plummeting. My plan was to persuade the staff at the station to let me camp down in the waiting room, but they said they locked it up at midnight after the last train of the day.
The most amusing thing about this encounter was the young ticket clerk using the voice translator on his iPad for communication. He got me to speak to the device, say what I wanted, and he listened to the Japanese translation. But he just fell about laughing….. And when he spoke some Japanese into it, and I listened to the English version, I just fell about laughing.

Anyway, after all the fun and the failure to communicate, I had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to crash somewhere warm, so I booked into a little ryokan, had fun trying to hold a sustained conversation with the landlady, then went for a soak in the already-prepared bath……making sure, of course that I showered beforehand, and didn’t leave any soap suds in the bath water…..the simple reason being that others may use the same water for their soak.
So how does your non-Japanese mind cope with that prospect…..?

Japan day 26

Japan day 26
Hakodate 24 km
The 4 hour crossing to Hokkaido was mostly spent lying down on the tatami-matted resting area you find on all Japanese ferries. But where did this man finally lay his weary head for the night?
When I checked out the modern ferry terminal in Hakodate, discovered it had three floors, all furnished with inviting couches that would take a 6 foot ‘gaijin’ like myself, it was a ‘no-brainer’, my search took me no further. And because they ran ferries through the night, this building would stay open…..however, I had to contend with automated announcements until midnight, when they realised this strange man lying on a couch was trying to sleep, and they graciously turned them off.

I’d like to say I rose with the larks, grabbed a quick breakfast and headed off to explore the historic city of Hakodate….but the reality was radically different. This was Hokkaido…..mention Hokkaido to any Japanese and their immediate reaction is the feign a shiver, and go “Brrrr” (or the Japanese equivalent) while screwing up their faces in mock horror. It has a reputation for being very cold, and this morning, extremely wet….. I was happy to do nothing for several hours, lounging about this ultra modern building that was designed like the front end of a ship (you know, the pointed end?). It was going to be a non-cycling day anyway, just whizzing around the city to see a few key sights.

By lunchtime, however, the weather had cleared, and I got a phonecall from Hiroaki, my Warmshowers host for the night. He zoomed out to the ferry terminal on his motorbike to meet me, guided me to his little flat, where I unloaded the bike, made an arrangement to meet back there in the evening, and I then headed off to town on a now unladen bike (which suddenly seemed light and flighty!).

First stop, the Foreigners’ Cemetery…….

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second stop, the historic point of entry where the world came into Japan to end it’s 200 years of self-imposed isolation in the mid-19th century (and hence the Foreigners’ Cemetery).

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And then I began to realise that another legacy of that history was the number of Christian churches about the city, the majority seemingly Greek and Russian Orthodox.
Third stop…..yes, you’ve guessed it….an onsen….in this case one mysteriously called Spa & Casa….
Why the Spanish name ‘Casa’ remains a mystery to me, but it may be connected to some old Spanish influence, because I noticed in an information leaflet that in the spring and autumn they have two important ‘tapas’ festivals, where restaurants serve a range of ‘pinchos’ and drinks, and it is so popular, you have to book your tickets in advance.
Mmn….interesting I should have picked up a bottle of Spanish wine to accompany the delicious European meal that Hiroaki was to serve that evening.

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But more of that in another post….. (you will be intrigued…..I promise!).

Japan day 25

Japan day 25
Yamatate-Aomori 82 km
If I had known last night there was another Roadside Station just 8 km further down the road (and all downhill, to boot) would I have opted to move on? Even with that knowledge, I was not disappointed with my choice. My room turned out to be a tatami suite,

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with a great selection of high quality furniture, and the breakfast the following morning was a veritable journey of discovery

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…for the first time in my 25 days in Japan, I had to ask for a knife and fork to eat the egg and bacon that was cooking on a little table-top stove. The fact they had to hunt for them through all the cupboards told me that a ‘gaijin’ like me was a rare happening here.
In fact, because there were a lot of Japanese seniors at breakfast, I decided this was a government sponsored spa hotel, with prices subsidised in favour of the retired. The quality was, indeed, exceptional for the price.

As I was preparing the bike to leave, the young receptionist (who had been extremely courteous and helpful) handed me the following note

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….apologising for his lack of English. To write that note, he would have resorted to Google Translate……something which all smartphone-toting young people do all the time here in Japan. Within seconds they can find their answer…. One day, if they don’t already exist, we’ll all be carrying devices that will convert our native tongue into the foreign language of choice, something like the device used by Stephen Hawking. I’d certainly have a use for something like that right now. Former language teachers are not supposed to be tongue-tied in a foreign country……..are they?

En route to Aomori (my last stop on the island of Honshu) I wanted to spend at least three hours in Hirosaki, visiting the Castle

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….some of the many temples built in serried ranks along long avenues

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….and the 5 storey pagoda, proclaimed as one the most beautiful in Japan

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….but it was there I met two gentlemen with their folding Brompton bikes, one with a fine tan leather Brooks saddle

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…and I knew I was in the company of people who were prepared to pay for their quality hardware. (For those who don’t know, Brompton and Brooks are two British manufacturers famous the world over for their quality products).
My plan on arriving in Aomori was to stay the night and catch the ferry to Hokkaido in the morning…….. I am, however, tapping in this post on my phone on the early evening ferry, which will arrive at 9pm in Hakodate…..which is normally the time I fall asleep…..except that this head has nowhere to rest itself…….yet. Any suggestions?

Japan day 24

Japan day 24
Akita-Yamatate 125 km
I have seen thousands of election posters as I have cycled the length of Japan, and I’ve come to a few conclusions about the political image they want to put across. The clenched fist is a very common pose by candidates. Now, what does that mean to you? Conviction? Determination? You can rely on me? I’ll get the job done? Well, take a few seconds to study this picture….

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What do you think? Is this the sort of man you could rely on to sort the country out? His clenched fist may say one thing, but his expressionless face puts across a very different message. They don’t go together. If he said he was going to solve the aging problem in Japan by introducing non-voluntary euthanasia for the over 80s, would you believe him? It looks rather like the clenched fist of non-confrontational politics and conformism….or am I being unfair?

For those of you who follow my meanderings on this blog just to get the unexpurgated version of the “mud, wet and gears” of cycling Japan, I’m sorry I get so distracted by things either side of the road. You must get very impatient with me…..

After today, if Japan has a Ministry for the control of over-indulgence, then I might be top of their target list. Not just one onsen…..but two! After 8 days following the coastline of the Sea of Japan, I decided to head inland, up into the mountains,

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where snow drifts still linger on by the roadside, chilling the temperature as you climb and descend. As fate would have it, a sign pointed to an onsen just off the route and, despite only being half way through my day’s ride, I couldn’t resist it.

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It was a tiny place within a community centre, just one plunge pool that might fit 3-4 people. As I looked out on snow, I chatted to a pool companion whom I think was a Buddhist monk. He pointed to his shaven head as if it were a trademark of his profession.
Getting back on the bike after a thermal soak is an exhilarating experience. For some reason, the pedals turn much more easily.

Now, where did the second thermal soak come from? I passed through Odate, having been informed by Tourist Information there was a Michinoeki (Roadside Station) some 18 km up the road. The prospect of a free sleepover prompted me to head out, even though there was only one hour of daylight left.
As luck would have it, when you’re in a hurry, the unpredicted frequently gets in the way, and most of the 18 km were a climb back into the mountains, the temperature plummeting with the increase in elevation.
I arrived only to find that this Roadside Station was unlike the others, where travellers can lie down on tatami matting and have a snooze (like these two below).

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There were no relaxing facilities, because it was a hotel spa. It was a case of either take a room or move on. When the receptionist told me that a tatami room, with breakfast and onsen, would only cost £25……I had no hesitation in accepting……and my first move was to go straight to the spa, this time to an outdoor pool, that came with the chill smell and feel of the surrounding snow, and was completely enveloped in steam.
I was then ready for a large bowl of soba to help settle the empty stomach.

Tomorrow will be my last cycling day on the island of Honshu, and well over 2000 km completed. The end is beginning to feel nigh. All that remains is the island of Hokkaido, the coldest of all the islands, where the skiing season is still in full swing. Maybe….just maybe…..but not promising…. my tent will now stay packed for the duration…..

Japan day 23

Japan day 23
Nikaho-Akita
As I packed up and set off this morning, I decided the Michinoeki (Roadside Station) was not a bad place to spend the night. It was quiet (I was the only one to spend the night there), clean, with good facilities. The only thing it lacked was showers. So, my antennae were up looking for an onsen as I set off for Akita.
Now, an important thing about the word ‘onsen’ is how to pronounce it. On several occasions, I was met with total incomprehension, until I discovered I was putting the stress on the wrong syllable: I was putting the stress on the ‘o’ instead of the ‘e’. In Japanese, words of identical spelling can have different meanings with a slight change of pronunciation or stress.
After 44km on the bike, I looked up at this sign which announced another Michinoeki,

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but I also caught sight of the steaming circle on a red background….I was not going to let this opportunity of an onsen pass in case there were none in Akita. This was an opportune moment for a break, but this time it was for more than just a cup of coffee. Sakata was still a sore point with me….

Now, onsens are simple places to enter, especially if you arrive on a bike.

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Just lock up the bike and go in. For 300 yen (£1.75) I joined the ritual of kicking off shoes, undressing (and I am talking about segregated bathing here….in Hokkaido, it may be different) soaping and showering in a communal bay, sitting on a low stool, and then entering one of three hot spring pools…..moving on to the jacuzzi pool, and finally migrating to the outside pool which, in this instance, had stunning views of the sea lazily lapping up on to the beach (unbelievably windless today, and sunny to boot). Of course I would love to show you photos of the inner workings of an onsen, but there’d be rather too many pendulous appendages for family entertainment here (if you get my meaning). But to enjoy the onsen, you have to be un-self conscious about your own nakedness…..everybody else is.

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The ritual of the onsen is taken very seriously by the Japanese. Most don’t go there to talk and socialise. This is all about emptying the mind, and enjoying the solitariness of your own inner state of being. The solo long-distance cyclist knows all about this, but to experience it soaking in hot thermal waters is truly therapeutic.
I like the image of filling the mind with emptiness, and emptying the body of its fullness (of stresses and strains).
As I ‘floated’ out of there, at one with life once again, I ordered a ‘bento’ in a nearby stall,

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was given green tea to complement it, I climbed back on the bike and wobbled along dreamily for several kms. But it seemed effortless.
When I got to Akita, and I know some of you will cluck in disapproval, I checked into a hotel….my excuse being, of course, I needed to catch up on laundry. Of the 23 nights so far on this trek, this is only the sixth time I’ve paid for a room. I’ve been hosted on six nights, and free/wild camped on 11. I have loved the variety. No two nights have been the same.

Try it sometime, if you haven’t done so already. Go back to basics. Find out what you can tolerate. Have the courage to arrive somewhere after a long tiring day of travel, not knowing till sunset (or after) where you’re going to lay your weary head. It takes a little bit of courage, but there’s a lot of fun and adventure in finding out what serendipity can bring into your life. Believe me…..

Japan day 22

Japan day 22
Michinoeki Atsumi Sharin-Nikaho 108 km
(Apologies if you received an alert about a blank post. The 7/11 wifi service that I used to upload had a glitch and lost the content. So here is version 2).
“The best laid schemes o’ mice and men….”.
Have any of your plans ever gone awry? Mine do frequently but, of course, like a typical man, I always attribute the blame elsewhere.

I was 25 km ahead of schedule, so I planned a short day’s ride to Sakata, book a room, then ‘hit’ the onsens (hot springs) and chill out for the afternoon. Well the easy bit was getting to Sakata……
When I checked in at the Tourist Information, that’s when things began to unravel. Japan is a lovely country, but in some quarters, it simply does not come up to speed.

Would I be right to expect employees in Tourist Information to, not only speak some English, but to have an appreciable level of proficiency? In most of the twenty or so offices I have visited on this journey so far, only 2 or 3 employees have had any knowledge of English. Japan is a technically advanced country, with the third largest economy in the world, but the infrastructure of its welcome to foreign visitors is pathetically lacking. Most of its tourist literature and maps are written only in Japanese kanji, meaning that all non-kanji readers are excluded. Do you read kanji?

Once we had surmounted communication issues, I asked them where the onsens were in town. They looked at me and smiled apogetically, shaking their heads. They pointed to the map at Nikaho, some 50 km away, saying that would be the nearest. I stood there a little deflated and wanted to say to them: ‘a Japanese town without an onsen is like a British pub with no beer…..what’s the point?’….but I didn’t of course.

Nikaho was on my route north, and I was determined to have a long soak in a thermal pool…..but so much for the relaxing afternoon. I got to Nikaho a couple of hours later, but no sign of an onsen, and the light was fading rapidly. So I called by a little local train station to ask for help finding a room. Well, a foreigner asking awkward questions in a language other than Japanese sent three of the staff into a flat spin. I had three of them working on my case, and could only come up with a hotel another 20 km up the road. I must have graphically conveyed the message that I was done for the day, and I was going to stay right there in their little town. They weren’t quite sure what to make of me…..

I asked the station manager if I could sleep in his station waiting room, which caused him to ring his daughter, who came in haste to use her rudimentary grasp of High School English as an interpreter.

No I couldn’t sleep in the station, but when I heard mention of a Michinoeki, I knew what the solution was, because I’d been to one the previous night, and passed another just 5 km down the road.

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A Michinoeki is a Roadside Station, what we would call a traveller’s rest, with certain facilities open 24/7. These include a relaxation room, washrooms and vending machines. I’m not sure they are intended for sleepovers, but I had the whole room to myself,

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and it was clean and welcoming, with lots of display boards with useful maps, one of which showed where all the other Minchinoekis were in northern Japan.

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This photo could be a handy reference in the coming days. As an option, they are more than just a stand-by.

But this morning, and on a lighter note, as I sat outside a 7/11 store using their wifi, a lady came out of the shop and, without any explanation, gave me a hot coffee. And she even went back inside to fetch me sugar and milk…. I tell you, Japanese people are very kind.

Japan day 21

Japan day 21
Niigata-Michinoeki Atsumi Sharin 115 km
I told you of my tent partly collapsing last night. Well for the benefit of all those who were worried on my behalf (probably only one, and that possibly being my wife), the poles didn’t break after all. One of the telescopic sections hadn’t been secured properly, and that happened probably because I had pitched the tent as it was getting dark, to avoid being too conspicuous, and I probably fumbled around a bit. And so glad I brought a scarf , beanie and buff…great for keeping head and neck warm at night…..and the .nights have been cold…

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When I got up this morning at 5am (first light), expecting to slip away unobserved, there were already dozens of power walkers, joggers and stretchers out doing their thing. All around me was a hive of activity….probably one of the reasons why Japan has the greatest longevity of any nation. And in that, we have an economic time bomb about to explode. Too many old people and not enough babies being born. Japan needs to address the issue…..and I wonder if it features in any of the political gameplay of these elections?

I would have said that today was a routine day on the bike……..but it wasn’t really. Routine had come to mean ‘with a strong headwind’ in the last several days, but today there were long(ish) periods of calm. Unbelievable……I kept pinching myself.

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This turbine had either lost the joust with Don Quijote and his mate Sancho the Belly (Panza), or there was no wind, for it was totally becalmed. But alas, not for long…..

The beaches on much of this coastline following the Sea of Japan, suffer from very sad neglect.

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They are strewn with litter, making them both unsightly and unappealing. However, the last 50 km of my route today were stunningly beautiful.

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This stretch of coastline, including the little islands and rocky outcrops, appear to be National Park, and as the road sweeps around headlands and through tunnels, you are startled by new seascapes, and rocks with arches, and islands that have been colonised by gannets.

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Tonight, I have found a quiet little shrine, where I will sleep in the enclosed entrance foyer. So glad I wasn’t carrying Zenda’s heavy bike, because I was able to lift both my bike and luggage up the 100 or so steps to the shrine……where I can hide away for the night and not be disturbed (I hope).

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And to finish with a little amusing observation….I so love the way the ministry of transport apologises for the inconvenience of roadworks.

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The instantly recognisable humility of the Japanese bow……’we are so very very sorry to have to inconvenience you….please forgive us’. And who wouldn’t……?
D’you think roadworks in the UK might benefit from a bit of ministerial grovelling?

Japan day 20

Japan day 20
Joetsu-Niigata 115 km
I had made an arrangement with a Warmshowers contact to stay with them in Joetsu, but their commitments had got in the way, and they put me on to a guy called Matt. I was told he was a cycling fanatic…..but that was all.
After exchanging several texts during the day, the final arrangement was to meet at a station in a suburb. When Matt turned up in a long hatchback car, I knew immediately he was used to carrying bikes. We loaded up and headed for an onsen (hot spring), where we had dinner, followed by a long therapeutic soak in natural hot volcanic spring water. If I could export one thing back to the UK, it would be an onsen. In fact I’ll probably have my back garden drilled in the hope of finding a hot spring…..
Matt, born in Toronto, has lived in Japan for 8 years, is a fluent speaker of Japanese, teaches English in a Junior High School, and has the improbable qualification as being an expert and producer of sake, a bottle of which was opened in my honour.

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This has led to an invitation to speak at a local Rotary group, obviously not on how to make sake, but more to do with the international perception of sake as a drink. Could it have more success as an export product, he wondered?
This morning, after all the cycling chat, Matt was prompted to cycle into work, but we had to peel off in different directions after only 200 metres together, me down to the coast, he to the centre of town. It was a pleasure to know him, and be hosted by him.

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Now, about today’s ride, I am definitely not going to mention the headwind….even though it’s behaviour was again criminally offensive…… :( But the delightful coastal route produced two major happenings, one very positive, and the other stopped me in my tracks and made me turn around and back track, looking for an alternative route.
The first was like the Clapham omnibus: for the benefit of non-Brits out there, you wait all day for a bus, then two arrive at the same time. I hadn’t seen another long distance cyclist for nearly 3 weeks, then 2 turn up on successive days. After Yamaguchi of yesterday, I met Zenda today, again going in the opposite direction and, of course, with the wind behind him (where did I go wrong?).

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Now Zenda Is a major world traveller. Born in Hong Kong, after living in the UK for 8 years and qualifying as a teacher, he set off from Cardiff 20 months ago, and tracked his way through northern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and the Baltic states, the Balkans, Turkey and the ‘Stans, Tibet and China, and into Japan.
Now look carefully at the load on his bike. I guess he’s carrying 40-50 kilos. But that’s not all. Yesterday he sent home more than 17 kilos….that’s 3 kilos more than my own entire luggage….and that’s only what he sent home, because it is now superfluous to his needs.
The other amazing attachment on his bike was his Kindle.

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He has it mounted so he can read while he rides…… I have seen many weird things in the world of cycling, but never this. Please don’t try this at home….. it comes with a health warning. He will finish his adventure in Hong Kong, after crossing Korea and part of China.
An impressive young man, to say the least. Would you employ him in your school as a teacher?

The other incident was much less pleasant. I was flagged down by a policeman and told there had been an accident in the tunnel ahead, and he asked me to turn back.

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Of course, I was not well pleased, because it meant climbing back up a very steep descent I had just come down and find an alternative route.
As I was studying Openstreetmaps on my phone, the ambulance went past, prompting me to see my frustration for what it really was…..an extremely minor irritation. For the person in the ambulance, this accident could be life-threatening, or life-changing at least.
I pen this post lying in my tent in a tiny public garden overlooking the sea……and my tent posts (ie.that keep the tent standing up, and not collapsing on me), have just snapped. Damn it! There must be a message in this somewhere. Oh, well, let’s leave it till the morning….it’s only the feet-end of the tent that’s partially collapsed…..and hope it doesn’t rain tonight….if it does, I’ll be migrating into the nearby public loos…. :(

And for those who like tunnel photos, this is what it’s like as you enter one, and I guess this could be my 200th tunnel of the journey so far….and counting……

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Japan day 19

Japan day 19
Toyama-Joetsu 128 km
Over a leisurely breakfast with Taka, I learn more about his family (daughter married in the US, and a son in Toyama), how he learned his English (music, radio and travel), more about his collection of guitars

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and the beautiful Japanese cedar wood house he had built for himself

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in a traditional old Japanese design. Most original houses like this were destroyed during the war and, of course, new houses these days have a more contemporary design.
Taka wanted to accompany me out of the city

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and put me on the coast road, which would be my best route for the day. And I was not disappointed. It took me along a stretch of road that had some considerable history in the development of communications between east and west Honshu.

My light relief from a full-on in-my- face wind came after 40km, when  the snow-covered Alps started descending directly onto the road. This meant that, to build the road, they had to carve huge swathes out of the rocks, and put in these overhang tunnels for miles and miles….

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.hence providing me with shelter from the wind. I couldn’t believe my luck. What had started as a very challenging day, suddenly changed complexion…..and since cyclists were banned from one the tunnels, following the original road along the cliffs, I came across a monument

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commemorating the centuries of dangerous passage along this coastline, where countless lives were lost….until, of course, this road was built.

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The views were spectacular….something that had also been appreciated by the British missionary, Rev Walter Weston

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who, during his three periods of missionary service in the late 19th century, virtually pioneered alpine climbing and trekking in Japan. It would seem he’s venerated as the the father of mountaineering here in Japan.
The pace towards Joetsu got faster then, suddenly, I caught sight of Yamaguchi

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across a very busy highway. I ‘risked life and limb’ to join him for a chat, and despite our mutual lack of language, I learned he was a sushi restaurant owner, but he was now on a mission to cycle the entire coastline of the four major islands of Japan. Frankly, my jaw dropped…..he showed me his entire route, and I reckon it will surpass 20,000 kms.

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Just before we mounted our respective bikes to go in opposite directions, he ran across the road to give me 2 little ‘chocos’ (chocolates), giving me a thumbs-up and saying “Segoi!” (fantastic!)
I have to say, Yamaguchi made my day.
But not just him…..when I arrived at Joetsu, and eventually found the agreed meeting point at Takada Station, I was to meet Canadian, Matt, who helped to make an improving day even better…..but more of that in another post.

Japan day 18

Japan day 18
Kaga-Toyama 126 km
To bow or not to bow….that is a very good question. I would say, if in doubt, always bow. Japanese people seem to bow at every given opportunity. When I got on my first internal flight with Japan Airlines, the stewards bowed reverentially to the whole cabin several times, then to each passenger as they served food and drink. A lot of bobbing up and down went on throughout the journey.
TV presenters and weather forecasters bow deeply to the camera both before and after their presentations. Go up to someone in the street to ask directions, and you’re likely to get a preliminary bow. After a while, it becomes instinctive. Even traffic controllers at road works have bowed to me when they have waved me through, and my helmeted head nods back in acknowledgement.
I like it. In fact, I like it so much that the next time I cycle past you in the street, I shall expect a deep reverential bow…..

Today’s journey will go down in the annals of my own personal history as eminently forgettable. Why? Too busy a highway, a headwind that was unforgivably strong, and it was freezing cold! The weather front is coming from Siberia, and will continue as such for several more days. I almost feel like turning back and heading south again….but then that’s what a wimp would do. This man is made of sterner stuff….

The great plus about today was being welcomed into the home of Taka…

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A member of Warmshowers, he has cycled in many parts of the world, including across America, and around most of the Baltic countries. His next trip will take in Korea and parts of China, and next year he will return to Europe, including the UK and Ireland.
After we had finished our meal and ‘chewed the fat’ extensively over matters cycling, he talked about his collection of guitars, banjos and mandolins, and then gave me an impromptu little performance.

Tomorrow, he will cycle with me out of Toyama to put me on the coastal road (the best route) to my next destination. What better service could one cyclist give to another…..?

Japan day 17

Japan day 17
Tsuruga-Kaga 123 km
A question to my UK friends: are you enjoying the election campaign? You probably think I made a smart move by being out of the country, but let me tell you that no sooner had I left the ryokan this morning when I was canvassed for my vote. Believe me….
What I hadn’t bargained on was that Japan was going to have its own election campaign at the very same time, and that I might be constantly canvassed for my vote. Everywhere I go, cars full of party devotees, all waving to anyone (and no-one), recorded messages blasting out from loudspeakers…..I stopped to photograph this little group

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….when the lady candidate scurried over to me to bow and shake my hand profusely, saying repeatedly. “Arigato, arigato….thank you, thank you”…..for what I don’t know, but I was the only person who stopped, everyone else just ignored them, and continued with their daily business.

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Candidates stand on street corners speaking to everyone (and no-one)…..I haven’t seen any of them actually engage with members of the public and find out what people are thinking. I suspect this is just one of the many ingredients that make up the Japanese version of non-confrontational democracy. Not for them the angry exchanges and political punch-ups so characteristic of British democracy.
Anyway, I’ve decided to give my vote here to the highest bidder…I’m afraid a friendly wave from a car is just not good enough.

When I headed out of Tsuruga, predictably the rains arrived to see me off. But it was a simple route today…..just hug the coast and go north……could anything go wrong? Yes, you’ve got it….my glasses were so clouded by the rain that I missed a vital turn, followed the traffic going up some steep climbs, and through fairly hostile tunnels

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….but my route notes told me there were no extended climbs today. 35 kms into the ride, I switched on my phone GPS, discovered the error, and tracked across some mountains to get back on my original coastal route. The change in traffic and riding environment was dramatic. After several days battling with traffic congestion and never-ending traffic lights, I suddenly found myself cruising through sleepy fishing villages

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that hugged the sides of mountains, passing through cycle-friendly tunnels that revealed extraordinary views through wide crevices in the rocks

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After 3-4 hours lull in the rain, it started coming down again so heavily, and directly into my face, that I was at pains to see where I was going. It became prematurely dark as I got into Kaga, my intended destination being Komatsu, another 13 kms further on. But I limped into the first hotel I found, got to my room and filled the bath to the brim……where I stayed for the next half an hour, with a cup of green tea as my Japanese companion. Pure bliss….!

As I looked at the extended weather forecast on my BBC weather app., I have to accept that the route north, following the Sea of Japan, is going to be cooler and wetter, and in another 10 days, I will cross to the most northerly island of Hokkaido, where the skiing season is still in full swing. That’s when my luggage weight will decrease dramatically…….why? Because I will be wearing most of it…. :)

Japan day 16

Japan day 16
Katata-Tsuruga 80 km
As darkness was descending last night, I walked along the lakeside beach, and fell into conversation with Motoi, a young elementary school teacher, with a passion for fishing. While we chatted, he cast his line to catch black bass

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….but they weren’t biting. Like so many Japanese people, he would love to improve his English, but his circumstances are not conducive. Like the UK, Japan is an island nation, and island nations like ours have a long history of keeping the barbarians out, and not learning their languages and their customs. And as I pen this post, I notice I have just received this ‘selfie’ taken by Motoi as the the last flicker of daylight faded last night

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Now let me ask you: how did you spend your Easter Sunday? Was it bright and sparkling, bathed in warm spring sunshine as you opened your first chocolate egg? Well, I’d like to ask: why do bubbles burst? Some wag will say that bubbles are meant to burst….that is the nature of a bubble….(damn it!).
Because, in the small hours of Easter morning, my little bubble burst.

All those sweet treacly things I said about camping by a beautiful lake…..well, tosh to that!……it began raining, and continued to rain throughout the night, finding its way into my tent (when it shouldn’t), till I had to start rescuing things at 4am.
Fortunately, there was a covered picnic area nearby, so this unhappy bunny could hang his kit to dry off a little

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….and start preparing himself for a journey of discontent (note the colour-coordinated Budgens plastic bags serving as waterproof socks….someone please tell Charles to stop putting little holes in the bags….).

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After a leisurely breakfast of sardines, bread, fruit and cold coffee (giving drying time for the kit, of course) I was ready to do battle with Japan…..I mean, of course, its weather.

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And it continued to pour for the rest of the day, even when I had to climb beyond 300 metres to the fading snow fields of a ski resort

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….and why the Japanese ministry of transport needs to tell us what is already transparently obvious, beats me….

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So having got all of that off my chest, I sincerely hope you’ve had a joyous Easter Day, that your roast spring lamb was the best you’ve ever tasted, and you are now enjoying a digestif accompanied by shards from your second Easter egg.
My little celebration tonight, now that I am in Tsuruga, on the Sea of Japan coast, is to book into a traditional Japanese ryokan, have a much needed shower and soak, catch up on some laundry, and let the lady of the house prepare my evening meal and breakfast. Luxury!

And I leave you with this observation: when you suddenly notice that convenience stores have storm porches and umbrella stands….

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what does that tell you about the weather on this side of the Alps? Hmm…..this is where I stay until I reach Hokkaido. I need to get Buddha back onside….

Japan day 15

Japan day 15
Kyoto-Katata 54 km
From the ridiculous to the sublime…. I decided not book another 12 hour shift in a 6×3′ cubicle, comfortable though it was. It was time to get away from cities, and I fancied the idea of sleeping by a lake. The next day’s route up to the Sea of Japan was going to skirt the biggest lake in the country, so I stole into that route this afternoon, and am composing this little piece to the sound of water lapping onto the shore.
And yes, I left my cubicle shortly after 6am this morning, and headed to the district that was thick with temples and shrines.

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1700 temples and shrines in one city….why Kyoto? Well, Kyoto had been the capital of Japan under the Shoguns for over 1000 years, and in that time it accumulated deities and places to worship them in.

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Not even Rome with its inflated number of churches can match Kyoto. Around every corner you will stumble across yet another. You could be kept busy for weeks.
I visited about 10,

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listened to monks chanting and sounding the gong, watched families preparing for a blessing or a wedding, and with thousands of others, enjoyed the extraordinary display of cherry blossom.

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The city parks, temples and shrines, are a riot of white and pink blossom. People stroll under it, stopping to study it carefully, probably making comment on how it compares to previous years. The media in Japan constantly runs updates on its progress, and people start preparing for the big hanami picnic, when a traditionally coy nation grows a little wilder, a little more boisterous in its behaviour……encouraged, of course, by liberal amounts of sake.

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Tonight, my tent is about 20 feet from the water’s edge of Lake Biwa. As I look across the water, all I see are the cones of a few volcanic islands…..and hear nothing but the lapping water, and the occasional train in the distance.

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Quite a difference from the centre of Kyoto.

Japan day 14

Japan day 14
Kobe-Kyoto 87 km
Having ‘camped’ in luxury last night, rather than just slip away quietly this morning, I went to thank the lady in charge. She appeared with a beaming smile, and to her every bow, I bowed in return, and she wished me a safe trip. She even stood at the gate to wave me off…..
Before I left Kobe, I particularly wanted to check out the Kitano area, built on a prominent hillside overlooking the city.

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To understand why there are so many 19th century European houses, you have to appreciate that, when Japan emerged from its 200 years of self-imposed isolation in 1858, Kobe became the entry point for foreign traders, resulting in the building of houses of distinctly European style.

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Their charm bewitches Japanese tourists, and they flock here in their thousands to gaze in wonder.

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Heading off towards Kyoto, the skies were threatening. After two weeks of constant sunshine, I was beginning to believe it was going to last forever, but a rude awakening lay just a few kms up the road. It didn’t just rain, it poured for 5 hours, and the appalling conditions were compounded by the sheer volume of traffic. This part of Japan is completely urbanized, so in going from one city to another, you travel through suburban corridors that reveal no open spaces, and traffic never thins out. The last time I had a day with such appalling conditions, was crossing Bulgaria last year, where the only positive thing I could say about it was, it got me one day closer to my destination. I am thankful now that, amongst all the alternative routes I researched, I decided not to go anywhere near Mt Fuji and Tokyo.

I limped into Kyoto tired, wet and bedraggled, only to find out that (like Hiroshima last weekend) all beds were officially sold out. Why, I asked at Tourist Information? Ah, it’s not only the cherry blossom season, they said, but this is the season for illuminating many of the 1500 temples and 200 shrines (yes, there really are that many). A third of Japan comes to Kyoto every year, and most of those will be in the next few weeks. It’s prime viewing time.
A young man then proffered a few suggestions: one was a sauna that offered dormitory-style sleeping, the other was an internet/manga cafe, where you could book a cubicle by the hour, and stay overnight. Well, I have to admit, I was intrigued. The nearest being the cafe, I checked it out first.

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They could offer me my own private cubicle, complete with computer, TV and lie-down space, for a block of 12 hours for about £20, and for every 15 minutes over that time, £1 will be charged.

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Toilet and washbasin are available, as are a variety of free drinks.

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But the curious addition to all of this are the ‘manga’……the infamous and outrageous comics that occupy the reading attention of all ages. I flicked through a few and couldn’t believe how explicit they were, and the fact that all the cartoon characters were obviously prematurely over-developed young teenagers. No doubt screeds of research have been done on Japan’s addiction to such literature.

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My 12 hour block of time will finish just after 6am tomorrow, so by the time anyone else is stirring in the city, I will have hit about 1200 of the 1500 temples……when I will pause briefly to have some breakfast….. :)
I had hoped to spend a 2nd night in Kyoto, but that will be under review as the day progresses.

Japan day 13

Japan day 13
Himeji-Kobe 70km
After the sake drinking last night, I fully expected Yoshi to renege on his promise to come and pick me up at 7.30am…….but he was there when I got back from breakfasting and washing at a local 7/11 store.
(btw, the ubiquitous ‘conbinis’ can be everything to the traveller…food and drink, toilet and washroom, cool or warmth….7/11 is my choice because I get free WiFi).
I packed up, we jumped on our bikes and headed to Himeji Castle.

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It was not yet 8am, when the doors opened, but half of Japan had turned up to tour the Castle……and for no other reason than to see it at it’s absolute best…..bedecked and embedded in an ocean of ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom).

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I couldn’t believe I had timed something so awe-inspiring so precisely….. It was so resplendent, thousands of amateur photographers had turned up with their bulky equipment and tripods.
This is the largest and most elegant of Japan’s existing medieval castles (and some were sadly destroyed during the war), and dates from the 16th century.

Although it appears to have only 5 floors, internally it has 7, and fighting our way with the crowds to the top, we were rewarded with views of the city midst it’s framework of cherry blossom.

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So stunningly beautiful is the ‘Great White Egret’ that it now has World Heritage status, and is officially one of Japan’s own national treasures…..used as the setting and backdrop for countless films.

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Before saying goodbye to Yoshi, who had been my guide throughout the morning

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….he had one last gesture of friendship up his sleeve. He had ordered one of the famous ‘bentos’ (lunchboxes) at a small local eatery, filled with myriad little mysteries (including lotus, slivers of ginger, baked tofu, raw fish….)

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I was deeply touched at the kindness shown to someone he’d only met 12 hours before.

After lunch I headed off to do the 70 km to Kobe, the city that hit the headlines 20 years ago when it was completely destroyed my a massive earthquake, killing 6000 people. The route all along this coastline, right up to and beyond Tokyo, is unremittingly urban. Every few minutes, for the length of the journey, I was stopping at traffic lights. It was a stop-start experience all the way…..I couldn’t find any rhythm to the pedalling which, of course, means you never find that sweet spot of forward momentum.
When I arrived in Kobe, I got myself  a city plan, circled the first Shrine I saw, and went in search. Half an hour later, I rang the bell of the guardian’s house, and met the lady in charge. When I explained I was looking for a pitch for my tent, she grabbed a key and took me across to an annexe, with a kitchen, toilet and tatami sleeping room.

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Amazingly, she said I could have it for the night, use cushions as a futon, cook myself a meal……but beware, they would lock the main gate at 9pm……
I simply couldn’t believe it……would you?

Japan day 12

Japan day 12
Takamatsu-Himeji 51 km
A truth that has forcefully emerged over time on my travels is that the more simply you travel and live, the more people will stretch out the hand of kindness and generosity. But sometimes you have to remain steadfast in your resolution to see it happen. More of that later.

Before I headed off for the first of the day’s two ferries, I attached my new sign to the bike

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….kindly made by Sachiko, with the all important Japanese kanji characters, to complement the romaji. Now everyone should be able to read it.
The day’s plan was to take the one hour crossing to Tonosho, on the small island of Shodoshima

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….cross the island following the northern coastal (hilly) road to Fukuda, then catch the ferry to Himeji on the biggest of the four major islands, Honshu.
The big attraction about Himeji is its castle, locally known as the Egret (because it is white, and looks like an egret from a certain angle), standing prominently over the city.
No sooner had I ridden off the first ferry onto Shodoshima when I heard a drone-like chanting coming out of a doorway, and picked up the distinctive smell of incense sticks being burned. I stopped and looked in. The small assembled crowd of pilgrims jostled around to make room for me to join then, and I spent 10 minutes enjoying the sound of a monotone chant, but in three part harmony. Quite extraordinary really…..and, of course, the location was a tiny Buddhist temple, and these pilgrims were travelling around the island’s temples on a pilgrimage, known locally as the henro.

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Wherever I go in the world, I come across local variants of religious belief and spirituality, all of which point to an unmistakable truth: it seems to be programmed into the human DNA to look to a source of energy and guidance that is beyond this world. Each manifestation of this, despite national and cultural differences, betrays common characteristics at every level, including the manner of prayer and worship.
When I got to Himeji, having picked up a city plan from Information, I went immediately to the principal Shinto Shrine

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and asked if I could pitch my tent in the garden. This caused a stir amongst several members of staff, and they really tried to persuade me to go to a hotel or guest house. I gently stood my ground, but I knew it was a non-starter, because they locked up the whole site at 6pm for security.
However, one of the young men, in his Shinto robes, jumped on his bike and took me a couple of kms away from the centre to a smaller shrine, and arranged with the caretaker for me to sleep there.

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Then things really began to happen. He phoned a friend, Yoshi, a retired teacher who spoke some English, and he came to meet me. He was obviously excited at the prospect of practising his English, so arranged with Masaaki (the caretaker) to bring some sake (rice wine), which we drank hot (a tradition here), and some snacks….

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….and we sat on cushions on the floor in the shrine office talking the evening away, and Yoshi has promised to take me around the sights of Himeji in the morning, and have lunch together before I leave for Kobe.

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None of this would have happened if I had weakened on my resolve to sleep in my tent, and allowed myself to be persuaded to take a hotel room.
Moral…….?

Japan day 11

Japan day 11
Takamatsu 0 km
Forty years ago, I was studying for an MA at Lancaster University, living amongst an international crowd of postgraduate students. We knitted very well together as a motley group of personalities, and one of those friendships was to endure and be revisited here in Takamatsu. Akihiro has spent most of his professional career teaching at Kagawa University and now, in retirement, he has moved to a smaller private university. (Many professionals like Akihiro have to continue working into their 70s because pensions are insufficient to meet living costs in Japan). Out of respect for privacy, no photos are included here, but Akihiro and Sachiko (his wife) have spoilt me something terrible, made too much of a fuss of me, have fed me with richest offerings of the land…..in short, it has been very sad saying goodbye to them. And like most Japanese people, they think I am totally mad cycling the length of their country…..and to think (they say) I will be finishing in Hokkaido where, even in April, it will still be bitterly cold…….(now they tell me!). Oh well, maybe I’ll find myself sleeping inside temples and shrines (instead of in their gardens), pleading with Buddha to take pity on me.
For much of the morning Takamatsu was bathed in warm spring sunshine……

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and Akihiro took me to one of the three most famous traditional gardens in Japan: Ritsurin Garden, where the cherry blossom was bursting out in all directions…

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…and people were beginning to celebrate their annual ‘hanami’ picnics beneath the cherry blossom. For the ten days the trees are in full flower, people just have a big party all over Japan,

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which starts in late March in the south, and finishes in late May in the north…..such is the difference in climate between north and south.

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A brochure describes the Ritsurin Garden as “a superb cultural asset that conveys the characteristic of the daimyo strolling gardens of the 17th-18th centuries…”. The daimyos were the great power lords who served under the Shoguns of that period, and they demonstrated their wealth by creating these fine gardens.
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And one of the many “assets” of such gardens is the Tea House where you can sample the serving of the ceremonial tea…..a small sweet delicacy served with green tea, sitting cross-legged on tatami matting, overlooking the lake where wasen boat rides take place.

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A day of friendship and relaxation will be, tomorrow, followed by a day of two ferry boat rides, and a 30 km crossing of Shodoshima Island……and back to the principal island of Honshu.
Then it’s back to the day job…… :)

Japan day 10

Japan day 10
Imabara-Takamatsu 150km
Compared to yesterday’s route, today could be classed as simply a long hard day at the office, with a lot of these in the scenery

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….but alleviated from time to time with sparkling views of cherry blossom (sakura) just coming into flower

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There was a purpose to coming to Takamatsu, it didn’t just happen to lie on the route. The purpose goes back to a friendship formed 40 years ago, during my postgraduate days, and an invitation made at that time. But more of that later.

I want to tell you of the special welcome at Imabari. I am a newbie in the Warmshowers community, and last night was only my second experience of being hosted. I was a guest of this delightful couple…..

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…Tsuneto and Akiko, both in their 70s, who were really doing the hosting on behalf of their son, Fumito and his wife (also Akiko). The latter two had spent their year long honeymoon cycling throughout China and Vietnam, and this was their way of putting something back into the community.
We lingered and chatted over a veritable feast prepared by Akiko senior,

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and then afterwards Fumito took me to his favourite onsen (hot spring) where we soaked in the volcanic waters in an outdoor pool. For me, the perfect antidote to a day on the bike.
When Tsuneto revealed that he and his wife are veteran pilgrims, we discovered we had the route to Santiago de Compostela in common. But more than that, when Tsuneto retired from medicine (at the age of 75), they walked the famous henro pilgrimage round the 88 temples on Shikoku, covering more than 1000 km. That was a major feat, and I was deeply impressed.
From free camping to the luxuries of being hosted by such kind people…..this journey has had everything so far.

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