Category Archives: End-to-End of Japan 3000kms
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….
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,
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.
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).
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 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.
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,
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.
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
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…
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.
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.
They are strewn with litter, making them both unsightly and unappealing. However, the last 50 km of my route today were stunningly beautiful.
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.
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).
And to finish with a little amusing observation….I so love the way the ministry of transport apologises for the inconvenience of roadworks.
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
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.
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.
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?).
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.
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.
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……
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
and the beautiful Japanese cedar wood house he had built for himself
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
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….
.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
commemorating the centuries of dangerous passage along this coastline, where countless lives were lost….until, of course, this road was built.
The views were spectacular….something that had also been appreciated by the British missionary, Rev Walter Weston
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 father of mountaineering here in Japan.
The pace towards Joetsu got faster then, suddenly, I caught sight of Yamaguchi
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.
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
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…
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
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
….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.
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
….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
that hugged the sides of mountains, passing through cycle-friendly tunnels that revealed extraordinary views through wide crevices in the rocks
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
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
….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
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
….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….).
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.
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
….and why the Japanese ministry of transport needs to tell us what is already transparently obvious, beats me….
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….
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
Quite a difference from the centre of Kyoto.
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.
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.
Their charm bewitches Japanese tourists, and they flock here in their thousands to gaze in wonder.
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.
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.
Toilet and washbasin are available, as are a variety of free drinks.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
Before saying goodbye to Yoshi, who had been my guide throughout the morning
….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….)
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.
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
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
….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
….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.
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
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.
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….
….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.
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.
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……
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…
…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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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
….but alleviated from time to time with sparkling views of cherry blossom (sakura) just coming into flower
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…..
…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,
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.
Japan day 9
Where do I start describing a day whose route would probably feature amongst my top 5 favourites of all time? I’ll cut the superlatives by simply saying: if you ever come to Japan with a bike, make this day’s route a priority.
But first, as I was making my way to the first of 7 suspension bridges, a smart X-Trail pulled over and the driver flagged me down. His name was Eduardo, of Brazilian Japanese heritage,
and all he wanted to do was……well, chat about his enthusiasm for cycling! And we did…..and he enthused even more about the route I was about to take, the Shimanami Kaido cycle route.
So what of this route, you might be asking. Well, I was hot-footing it back to Shikoku Island, but not by ferry this time, but via a cycle route that crossed six islands and seven major suspension bridges, the longest being 6.4km. To say that the scenery was stunning is a grave under-statement. Not only did the cycling take my breath away (and each bridge did include a 2-3 km climb just to get on the bridge) but so did the panoramas. They were unremittingly breath-taking the whole day. And being Sunday, half the Japanese nation were out on bikes enjoying the same. So, instead of rabbiting on, I’ll let the photos do the talking.
But first the route:
I also chanced by groups of primary aged children practising what looked like sword skills,
only to discover from one of the parents that it was a Kendo competition, a martial art that has been inherited from the Samurai days. These kids were as keen as mustard, and everyone of them meant business with their lunges and their strikes. I was invited in to watch with the eager crowd.
What I was watching was a bit of Japanese history being acted out.
When I got to Imabari, a very special Japanese welcome was waiting for me. But more of that in another post……..just to whet your appetite, it included a bit of this:
Japan day 8
Could I find a bed anywhere for 2 nights in Hiroshima? Not a hope. There was a big baseball match on as well as a convention, so officially all beds in Hiroshima were sold for Saturday night. So I took a bed in a kind of capsule hotel for last night. In this case it was like an upmarket backpackers’ hostel, where the beds were divided off into curtained cubicles. But very smart and very modern. And it gave me a chance to catch up on some laundry.
When I was searching for the hotel, I asked a young student for advice, and he said he was going in the same direction. We cycled together for some 20 minutes, he delivered me to the doorstep, and wished me luck with the trip. I suspect, however, he saw the detour as a good opportunity to practise his English. In fact he was concentrating so much on his English, he kept straying off course, and he nearly wobbled into a few pedestrians on the shared pavements.
Reading about the atomic destruction of Hiroshima in textbooks is one thing, but standing on the exact spot of the hypocentre of the explosion is quite another thing.
The Peace Memorial Park is located right beneath the detonation of the bomb on August 6th 1945. It’s a contemplative place. Much praying is done at the Cenotaph
where the names of the 340,000 dead are recorded. The Memorial Museum recounts the story of the drama in minute detail, the human suffering and the tragic consequences. The Children’s Memorial
reminds us that children continued to die years after the explosion, from the many radiation linked diseases. And the A Bomb Dome,
which survived intact despite being directly beneath the explosion, has been preserved as a fitting memorial to the horrors of atomic warfare.
As I was contemplating the Dome, Yamaguchi, a 69 year old cyclist, came to ask about my journey in his broken English.
I noticed he was wearing a badge that declared he was a Portuguese speaking guide (he’d lived in Brazil for many years), and he was a survivor of the A bomb. He showed me his birth certificate which stated he had been born one month after the explosion……in other words, he was an ‘in utero’ survivor. And his mother survived to live to age 89. He then took me to meet his colleague, Mito,
who was also an ‘in utero’ survivor, and then gave me a fragment of roof tile that had suffered the 4000 degree meltdown at the hypocentre.
My 4 hours wandering the Peace Park gave me direct access to understanding something of the scale of the human tragedy of August 6th 1945.
Climbing on the bike to head out of the city, my mind was mulling over the events of the morning, when it was suddenly jolted from its reverie by the unmistakable tune of Auld Lang’s Syne, being sung in Japanese at this wedding
……could anything be more weird than that?
It was a good 96km bash in the afternoon session, to Onomichi, to set me up tomorrow to cross the Shimanami Kaido highway, whose bridges link 6 islands in the crossing back to Shikoku Island. If the weather stays fine (which seems unlikely at the moment), the crossing should be spectacular.
Japan day 7
As the sun was setting, I headed up to the most prominent Shinto Shrine in town, the Hachiman, located at the top of a fortress-type mound, with commanding views over the town. I selected a small verandah to put up just my inner tent. There was no room for the full tent, and anyway, the surface was concrete and wouldn’t take pegs. It felt like a perfect spot. Quiet and undisturbed.
Temperatures dropped to just above freezing, but I was warm enough. Distant barking of city dogs ‘chatting’ to each other broke the silence, as did delivery vehicles until, at 5.30 am, a car drove up the hill and parked just 50 metres away, its headlights blazing in my direction.
Instinctively, I knew I was the target. A figure got out of the car and came in my direction. A split second decision: do I pretend to be asleep or get out of the tent and meet my visitor? What would you do?
Well, I took the latter course of action, opened my tent flap, and as he approached I said as breezily as I could: “Konnichiwa!” (hello!). I expected to be shouted at and told to pack up and leave immediately…..but on the contrary, he returned my greeting giving a slight bow, and walked on by. There I was all prepared to defend my case, and the wind was taken from my sails.
A few minutes later, I heard the creaking of doors, and at 5.45 precisely, the huge shrine kettledrum was made to boom across the city. He left a few minutes later leaving the entire precinct of the shrine open to the public. And I had it all to myself to explore….
There seems to be a level of tolerance and acceptance in Japan that even we in the west don’t enjoy. And Japanese society seems to tick over quietly with very low levels of crime. At no time in the last week have I felt threatened by any situation, nor worried about the safety of my bike.
My route to Matsuyama was an absolute delight. Most of it followed the coast, on a beautifully smooth road, the hills leveled by tunnels (my longest to date over 2km in length)
and the sun was shining throughout. Occasionally, the odd shrine caught my attention
Although I was watching the time for catching the 14.15 ferry to Hiroshima, the going was so fast, I found time to have a relaxing picnic on one of the many jetties I passed.
My plan is to spend two nights in Hiroshima, hopefully in a hostel, and take time out to learn about the city’s tragic history through the eyes of the people most affected.
Japan day 6
I woke up this morning forgetting where I was. I opened my eyes and, yes, I was at ground level as I would be in my tent…..but I was not in my tent. I was lying on a futon (not my air mattress) and I was under a mountain of soft duvet (and not in my sleeping bag)….and what’s more, I was in a tatami bedroom….
a bedroom that is absolutely minimalist: futon, duvet and tatami matting…..nothing else.
I was the guest of Young June OH and his family (wife and two little girls)……and they welcomed me into their family home for the night. So how did this happen, you might ask.
Well I became a member of Warmshowers.org, the cyclists-only equivalent of Couchsurfers. It’s made up of an international group of cycling enthusiasts who open their houses to host cyclists passing through their area. And last night was my first experience of being hosted.
For reasons of their privacy, no photograph is posted here, but they were the most charming family you could imagine. OH is Korean, and he met his wife (Japanese) in India. Their faltering English at the time was their only shared language, but further years of study and travel have much improved their fluency. They now live in a house that they built themselves,
and have two beautiful little daughters, one of whom engaged me in singing English nursery rhymes over breakfast, some of which she already knew from kindergarten.
It was a delight to stay with them, enjoy a traditional Japanese breakfast….and as I left, a little pack-up was thrust in my hand for the road. Experiences like that are the stuff of life.
(And to boot, having unlimited access to free WiFi, I was able to Skype my dear wife….for me at 7.30am, for her at 10.30pm….we were straddling two different days).
From a height of 600 metres, my route to Beppu was largely downhill,
several layers of clothing protecting me from the deep chill. Had I had the time, I might have stayed a while to explore some of volcanic-related offerings of Beppu, especially the hot springs and the seething cauldrons known as the ‘hell ponds’, but time was pressing, and I needed to catch the 14.00 ferry to Yawatahama,
leaving the island of Kyushu behind and heading over the water to the island of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The 3 hour crossing would give me time to relax and review my schedule for the coming days.
But I’m pleased to note that I am still bang on the draft schedule I made out for myself before departure.
As I upload this, I have my eyes on a Shinto Shrine for camping out tonight. Wish me luck…..
Japan day 5
From the Pacific coast, it was up into the mountains towards Mt Aso, which sports the biggest volcanic crater in the world. Last night the temperature had touched freezing point, but my 2 season down bag, plus a few layers of clothing, kept me snug and warm. Taketa, however, is nearly 400 metres above sea level, so what of my sleeping arrangements tonight? Will this man, for once, have to pay for lodging? More of that later.
But first, let me tell you about Osato
I stopped part way up the mountain at a layby with one of the ubiquitous drinks vending machines, bought myself a drink and started eating a snack. Osato got out of his car and started asking me the usual questions. I offered him a banana cake, he accepted, and two minutes later, out came his wallet and gave me a 1000 yen note. So then began the pantomime……
Accepting a gift in Japan has a set ritual…..you always (but always….no exceptions allowed) refuse. They will insist, you refuse again; they will insist again and you keep on refusing……until, of course, you are worn down into accepting. We Brits would just wonder why all the fuss….just accept the damn thing and move on. Life’s too short. In Japan, however, even though the outcome will always be the same (ie. you end up accepting) the preceding pantomime of refusing and insisting has to be played out…..if not, you will simply offend.
So Osato and I were nominated for an Oscar with our performance, and in return, I gave him my personal card, which he thought an excellent exchange. (Now I’m counting how many cards I have left, and how many thousands of yen they could earn me…..).
Saying farewell to Osato, I went into this facility thinking it was a loo, or a benjo
…and, of course, it wasn’t. It was, in fact, full of dirty mag vending machines, trying to peddle porn to pedalers like me (I presume). The plethora of front cover pictures suggested there are a lot of women out there with nothing to wear……a fairly typical female problem, I know.
Once in Taketa city, I sought advice at the Information centre about an address I have, dived into the onsen next door and luxuriated in the thermal baths for an hour, went to a restaurant and sampled ‘karage’, the local chicken speciality
….and waited for a lift. Reason for the lift? ……tune in for the next post.
(this is beginning to sound like a bad episode of ‘Corrie’….sorry about that).
Japan day 4
Being an inveterate traveller, a belief that sustains me through thick and thin is that we must always travel with hope. When times get tough, always believe that round the next curve lies your mini-salvation. Yesterday was one of those days.
The Zen rendition was about to start. The wind had changed direction (damn it)….it was now coming from the north at 20mph, and guess my direction? For the next 93km, I was heading directly into the teeth of the chilly blasts. It was cold, it was dispiriting, it was slow…
To cheer myself up, I stopped by a photographer’s and they gave me materials to make this sign for the back of my bike
primarily to avoid answering the same question (where you go?) 100 times a day, and just to stand back and watch them reading the sign, shaking their heads and sucking air in disbelief. However, an unexpected bi-product at my first refreshment stop was a young lad who thrust a bar of chocolate in my hands, punching the air in encouragement. That helped to lift my spirits.
When I got to Nobeoka, very tired and very disgruntled, I found an information office, and a young man, Nobutake, took on my case of looking for a pitch for my tent. And so began the final, and very unexpected, act of the day’s drama. He and his boss, Seizou, personally accompanied me up a steep hill to a beautiful little secluded garden belonging to a Shinto shrine, where I pitched my tent next to a public bathroom….very convenient!
Nobutake then took me to the shrine to pray for the success of my trip, and then grabbed an official car and whisked me up to an onsen (hot spring), where I was inducted into the ritual of naked bathing in the hot natural springs.
After four nights of free camping and no showers, I had almost become a signed-up member of that global community of the “great unwashed”. These hot springs were, therefore, pure bliss….
But that wasn’t all. Seizou and Nobutake had other plans
……they took me to their favourite restaurant where we sat cross-legged on cushions at a low table, and dish after dish of mysterious-looking food appeared, most of it fish and most of it raw, washed down by liberal meaures of beer and sake (rice wine).
Having accompanied me back to my tent, we said our goodbyes, I thanked them profusely, and they simply said: “we hope you leave with happy memories of Nobeoka”.
What do you think?