To the land of the Rising Sun
End-to-End of Japan
My nose has been deeply buried. For several weeks now I have been ‘feasting’ myself on a media diet of the history, geography and the mores of this nation of inscrutable people. This 3000 km journey, from Cape Sata in the south, to Cape Soya in the north, will be much, much more than just riding a bike…………..even though riding the length of one of the most mountainous countries in the world (75% of its landmass is volcanic) will be very much about riding the bike.
After listening to several podcasts of the excellent Melvin Bragg series Life in our times, my head is now filled with the history of the samurai, the shogunates, Zen Buddhism and Shintoism, the Sino-Japanese conflicts, the brief presence of European missionaries in the 16th century, followed by 2 centuries of isolation from the rest of the world. Japan only opened its borders again in the mid-19th century because of the bullying tactics of the Americans. It’s all fascinating stuff.
Then there is the geography of a country that is the most earthquake, eruption, and tsunami-prone in the world……bar none. And the sheer demographic of over 220 million people living on only a fraction of the landmass, in overcrowded cities on the flat Pacific coastal plains……..right in the line of any wandering tsunamis that come in from the Pacific (as we saw in the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster).
I have been much entertained and educated by the cycling adventures of Josie Dew in Japan. She spent two long periods riding the country and, though I would not aspire to her style of touring or the amount of stuff she carries on her bike (the proverbial ‘kitchen sink’, no less), she paints a vivid picture of the surprises she encountered on her travels.
And a quick lesson (via email) from a former pupil of mine who had studied Japanese at Durham University, on key language to get by with and, perhaps more importantly, advice on how not to ‘put my foot in it’ when meeting and dealing with Japanese people. So very important in a country where ‘saving face’ is as equally important as the ‘preservation of honour’ used to be in bygone Europe.
Traversing the country, I am going to be challenged by signage that will be written only in Japanese kanji (Japanese characters) and not in romaji (Roman characters). My map may have place names in romaji, but that will be of little use when gazing uncomprehendingly at kanji signs. And sadly, the Japanese have been amongst the world’s experts at tunnelling through their mountains. Why sadly? Well, for a cyclist, that can be critical, especially if one of your pet hates is riding through tunnels. There is nothing more disorientating than finding yourself in the middle of a long dark tunnel, with no lighting, and your entry and exit points are out of sight, and there are few light-reflecting white markings along the way to reflect the beam of your cycle light…………
There will be many stories to tell along the way, there is no doubt. And because of the huge climate change between north and south (south is sub-tropical, like the Canaries, and Hokkaido in the north is sub-arctic, much nearer to Vladivostock than Tokyo), I am having to break my cardinal rule of only taking what fits into a saddlebag. My own principles now in pieces, I join the ranks of pannier carriers……..but definitely only two.
And if luck is on my side, which it seldom is, I will coincide with the early blossoming of the cherry trees in the south, and follow it going north with the spring. However, finishing my journey before the end of April means that I will coincide with the snow-melt season in the far north…….in other words, it will still be very cold. Hence the extra clothing and the need for panniers.
I head off in a week’s time……..so stay tuned.