York Cycle Rally: stage 6 (141km)

Lincoln-Kimbolton 141kmLincoln-Kimbolton 141km

A very early start, and a chance to slip into Lincoln Cathedral before the ticket offices were open. I don’t know about you, but I have an instinctive (and inexplicable) aversion to paying exorbitant fees to see a little bit of our own architectural history, especially when it is a place of worship and would ordinarily be open to the public anyway. They need to take a lesson from Selby Abbey.Lincoln Cathedral

Like Ely Cathedral, it’s a bit like the ‘ship of the fens’…..situated on a high hill in the city, it dominates everything and can be seen for 20-30 miles across the countryside. In fact, until 1549 (when it collapsed) its 160 metre spire made it the tallest building in the world.

Being a National Trust member, I targeted Belton House, near Grantham, to stop for lunch and pay a visit to the house. Though the house was officially closed for the day, guided tours were given of the ‘downstairs life’. Whatever you see on Downton Abbey, take it with a pinch of salt. The below stairs way of life for the servants was much more rigid and severe.

At the end of the tour, we were ushered into the silver vault, and shown the silver service set that Margaret Thatcher (once a near neighbour of the Brownlow Family) had commandeered for use in Downing Street. Apparently, they had much difficulty retrieving it once she had left office!

And its other famous facet was the huge encampment erected during WW1 in the ample grounds for the training of over 170,000 machine gunners in the Machine Gun Corps.IMAG1887

The end of ‘stage 6′ of my York Cycle Rally marked the end of my little adventure. Six fascinating days, averaging over 80 miles a day, and covering just under 500 miles in total. For me the bicycle is a form of transport for exploring the world, and not just for the circular journeys I do so frequently from my home which, apart from the buzz they afford, reduce the purpose of the bicycle to merely that of an exercise machine. But, of course, that’s the very purpose so valued by the hundreds of thousands of club riders and sportive riders the world over…….so let’s not belittle it too much

York Cycle Rally: stage 5 (132km)

York-Selby-Epworth-Lincoln 132km

York-Lincoln 132kmThe homeward trek from an event can sometimes lack that element of expectation so endemic in the outward journey. A bit like going back home after a relaxing holiday…..you go back to comfortable familiarity, losing that adventurous edge of the previous few days/weeks. Not so for me on this homeward venture…….I was looking forward to checking out Selby Abbey on the way down, learning a little about the birthplace of the Wesley brothers (Epworth) and, of course, ending up in Lincoln for the night where I would be welcomed by another Warmshowers host….in this case a family of three.Selby abbey

Poor Selby, always in the shadow of its immensely more famous neighbour, York, its Abbey is frequently overlooked in favour of the Minster just 15 miles to the north. But don’t be distracted. The entry is free, the information boards and guides are excellent, and you don’t have the crowds. Put it on your itinerary.IMAG1881

Now you may not be enthralled by the history of Methodism, but when you pass through a small town in north Lincolnshire that gave birth to two history-changing brothers, you have to take a break and meander the streets. Epworth is situated on the Isle of Axholme, a piece of raised terrain above the level of dykes and ditches that have drained the lands for many years.

As I approached Lincoln, the heavens opened with a vengeance, and I was very happy to eventually find the home of Ben, Ruth and little Odin, who had kindly offered to give me a bed for the night. And there was a surprise in store. Instead of spending the evening predictably chatting about all things cycling (the default setting for most committed roadies), Ruth was taken aback to discover that I was keenly interested in her doctoral research thesis, into aspects of the Spanish Civil War, because we had very similar academic backgrounds, in the field of Hispanic studies. So, instead of having to sit there like a lemon enduring all this boring cycling stuff, she could lead the conversation back to 1930’s Spain, and know that someone at the table was engaged!IMAG1886

But the star of the household was definitely little Odin. He allowed this tired cyclist to sleep his fill in the guest bedroom, and I never heard a murmur from him all night. Ben and Ruth, if you are reading this, thank you all for making me so welcome, and I look forward to the first photo of the three of you astride the tandem!

York Cycle Rally: stage 4 (145km)

York-Hull-York 145km

You might be amazed to discover what penny-pinching cyclists will do to get a free lunch……. I rang my eldest brother (not the one of the boat in York) who lives in Hull, and I virtually invited myself to Sunday lunch……well, of course, my real motive was to do the family thing and…..well, er….visit my brother.

He lives with a religious community there, so it wasn’t just a straightforward “Can I come to lunch?”……other members of the community had to be consulted. And so it was set up…..and I was asked to be there by 12.30pm.York-Hull-York 145km

When I eventually arrived at the house, at 12.20pm, I was met by a member of the community who declared they were having a wager on whether I would get there on time. I smiled wistfully, and I really wanted to say “Oh you men of very little faith….” but I didn’t, because I wanted to make sure I was fed. I had just ridden some 45 miles and well……… you know the story. I needed calories to dig me out of a hunger pit, and get me back to York.

The great downside of this journey was the direction of the wind. A strong wind was coming from the west, and I had no option but to go east on the outward…….out of choice, I would have chosen a head wind on the outward, and basked in the relative comfort of a tailwind going back. But not this time. The calories from the meal were not going to be enough. I needed some extra fast-acting carbs. As I passed through Beverley, I stopped by a service station and did (for me) the unthinkable….I purchased one of those overrated, but ‘highly technical’, sports drinks (which are nothing but a mixture of glucose and caffeine)…..you know the one I mean, the one that shares the same name as an F1 team….. to put some va va vroom back into the legs. 40 miles later, as I pulled into the Racecourse in York, I had to admit that, if I had been doped tested on the spot, they would have found certain ‘substances’ in my bloodstream……..but, in this case, only what might be called a ‘legal high’ in the world of sport.

York Cycle Rally: stage 3 (85km)

York-Castle Howard-Malton-York 85km

After two full days crunching tarmac on my own, it was good to make adjustments to riding with a social group, and to being led by a local Yorkshire man who had done the route planning.York-Castle Howard-Malton 85km

This was a leisurely circular route that would take us up into the Howardian Hills, to Castle Howard, then on to Malton, returning to York through a variety of small pretty villages, negotiating some demanding 15% hills in the process.

I never realised that this area had so many connections with the Battle of Waterloo….and it so happened we were visiting during the bicentenary weekend of that fateful historic event. Frederick Howard (of Castle Howard) was killed in action while leading the last charge of the Battle of Waterloo (June 18th 1815), and in a village graveyard a few miles away, there lies another soldier, victim of the very same battle.IMAG1868

The ancient market town of Malton is, among other things, very proud of its close connections with Charles Dickens, who was not only a frequent visitor, but is believed to have written A Christmas Carol there. So proud are they of their connections that they have formed the Charles Dickens (Malton) Society to raise the profile of the links. Click here.

But I loved the sense of humour of one of the town’s retailers……..IMAG1873IMAG1872IMAG1871

There’s nowt so queer as Yorkshire folk!

York Cycle Rally: stage 2 (115km)

Tuxford-York 115km

Tuxford-York 115kmThe world of cycling hides many contradictions: as an activity, it is both solitary and sociable, energetic and relaxing, lung-busting and contemplative. Like many other sports, it brings people together to share a passion, but through that commonly shared interest, you get to meet a kaleidoscope of the different strata of society. And everyone is fascinating in his or her own way………

When I arrive at the The Knavesmire (York’s Racecourse), I look out at the vast emptiness that is slowly filling up with tents and caravans…….this is nothing like my usual pitch, which is usually in the shelter of some hedge or copse, or skulking out of sight of prying eyes. This is a huge unprotected landscape designed primarily for horse racing. When the winds blow and the rains set in, this is not the kind of environment I would choose for my little tent….. And when the wind did blow one night, one of the tent poles buckled under the strain and the tent suffered a partial collapse. So glad I had brought a few strips of gaffer tape……. a bodged job is better than no job, and it held for a few more nights.York rally photo camp site

Once settled in, I answered the invitation of my brother and his wife to join them at their sailing club, conveniently only one mile from the race course. And that proved to be a curious switch of social groups……. from a motley bunch of cyclophiles to a crowd of boating aficionados, where the talk was inevitably about affairs of the marina, and the comings and goings along the waterways of Britain. And there I sat in my cycling lycra……..ad:Layout 1

York Cycle Rally: stage 1 (151km)

Kimbolton-Tuxford 151km……en route to York

Kim-Tuxford 151kmRolling northwards against a brisk north westerly breeze, I had just negotiated a steep hill near Rutland Water when I chanced upon a cycling friend, going in the opposite direction. We stopped……I asked him his destination…..he then reminded me that the Thursday group were meeting for tea and cakes at a house just 3 miles back along my route.

Oh dear……were free tea and cakes a sufficient incentive to backtrack and then have to climb that hill again…….well, unfortunately, the answer was ‘yes’! Down I went, filled up on an exquisite selection of home-made baking, and then toiled back up the hill again. My job was cut out for me. It was already a 95 mile route to Tuxford, and I had now taken out a good 90 minutes from my schedule………and I had a Warmshowers host expecting me in Tuxford. I didn’t want to disappoint. But I had this strengthening head wind to contend with…….it was head down for the next 100 km.IMAG1864

The countryside alleviated the pain a little. Farmers must be despairing at the burgeoning poppy harvest this year, but they are there to delight the rest of us.

My host, Paul, waited patiently for my arrival. In his 9-5 existence he is a wind turbine maintenance engineer, but outside that, he has discovered the joys of the freedom of adventure cycling. IMAG1865Where most of us would have nervously tested the water of long-distance stuff in our own country, Paul headed off to Santiago in Chile, and spent a few months trekking down to the southern regions of the continent. And it wasn’t just a bicycle ride……..he had prefaced it by spending several months being privately tutored in the basics of Spanish. He had taken on the venture as a complete project. Inspiring! And a great host to a fellow cyclist……(if you are reading this, Paul, thank you once again).

White beards and hairy legs!

York cycle rallyI told some ‘roadie friends’ (all of them retired and of a certain age) that I was going to the York Cycle Rally and, despite its 70 year history, none of them had heard of it. I was amazed. When I explained a little of its history and the kind of cycling it catered for, one of them said “Oh, you mean old school cycling?” ……in other words, a polite way of referring to the predominance of white beards and hairy legs!

All of which, of course, got me thinking. This event had been founded in 1945, just after the war, by a group of cycling enthusiasts, and its only objective was to bring like-minded people together to enjoy, what was then, a burgeoning sport, especially amongst the working classes. Over the years, the numbers swelled, it was relocated on The Knavesmire, (York Racecourse), traders saw an opportunity and exhibition marquees were erected; grass track racing was introduced; and the programme expanded to include Audax rides, social rides, veteran bicycle parades, pub runs, and something that came to be named ‘bicycle belles’…….no need to guess what that was all about.IMAG1870

But sadly, in 2013, because of waning interest amongst traders and the changing buying habits of the cycling public, the event had to be cancelled, only to be given its re-birth two years later by a group of enthusiasts who had decided that the future of the event was not going to be so money-dependent, nor would it lean heavily on the support of traders buying exhibition space in marquees. So, after a two year ‘interregnum’, the York Cycle Rally was reinvented and restored, once again occupying its traditional mid-summer weekend in the calendar and, though they didn’t come in their thousands to fill the racecourse with tents and campervans, they did come in their hundreds. And there was something for everyone……..and there were bicycles of all descriptions. If something had a set of wheels and it was human-powered, you would likely find an example of it somewhere on the Knavesmire.

HPVs (Human-powered vehicles)

HPVs (Human-powered vehicles) and recumbent trikes

My two day weekend became a six day venture, when I decided to cycle there and back. It was quite an undertaking, adding nearly 500 miles to my annual calculations.

Stay tuned because I will share some of the routes in the next couple of posts.

To the land of smugglers and wreckers

Life is not just about the bike……just in case you had wondered. A journey to the south west to deepest Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, those remote islands so long associated with smuggling, shipwrecks, Augustus Smith (founder of Tresco Abbey Gardens), dramatic sunsets, pristine white sandy beaches, and the endless blue of the ocean as it meets the sky on the horizon.

No bikes (the longest stretch of road is only 3 miles), but a walker’s and nature lover’s paradise…..and if a bit of ancient history attracts you, they have found burial chambers and villages that go back to the Mesolithic age (6000 years ago?).

This is probably Jenny’s favourite place in the whole of the British Isles……it would be mine but for the danger of succumbing to ‘cabin fever’ after a few weeks.

Enjoy the photos.

Sunset at Land's End.....Jenny attempting to keep the sun from setting!

Sunset at Land’s End…..Jenny attempting to keep the sun from setting!

St Mary's

St Mary’s

Looking down over Cromwell's Castle from King Charles' Castle, Tresco

Looking down over Cromwell’s Castle from King Charles’ Castle, Tresco

Chilling on Tresco

Chilling on Tresco

Straining against the south westerly....

Straining against the south westerly….

One of the many ancient entrance graves

One of the many ancient entrance graves

St Michael's Mount in Cornwall....place where they first spotted the approaching Armada

St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall….place where they first spotted the approaching Armada

Journey to the centre of the earth by Richard and Nicholas Crane.

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If you are a fan of Coast on television, you will already be familiar with Nick Crane, one of the presenters. What you may not know is that he comes from a family where adrenalin-fueled competition and adventuring dominated the lives of the majority of siblings and cousins. From running the Himalayas to biking up Kilimanjaro, this bicycle journey was one of a long and exacting series of ultra challenges that would take them to the notional centre of the earth……defined by the Guinness Book of Records  as a point on dry land that, in all directions, is the furthest from the sea. And that spot was estimated to be somewhere in the Dzungarian Desert in the North of China, close to the Mongolian border…..but no one knew exactly where.

Their first task was to do the complicated mathematical and cartographic research to determine exactly where that spot was, and then to plan the 5000 km journey from the Ganges delta in Bangladesh, and cycle the distance over the Himalayas and across deserts, to complete the journey in only 50 days. Something that had never been done by anyone…..this was pioneering of an extreme kind.

If you are fascinated by stories of extreme adventuring, whether or not your interests lie in the field of cycling, this will be a compulsive read. It’s fascination lies as much in the physical and mental challenges of endurance riding, as in the the ever-changing dynamics of the relationship between the two cousins. It amounts to an in-depth study of two well matched athletes who push their bodies and minds to the limits of human endurance.

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.

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