Wednesday, 6 May 2015

over the sea

the best tunnel yet - a soundproofed bike lane
 When we reach the little port where the ferry departs for Shikoku Island it's trying to rain.  From Hiroshima we have coasted eastwards and then hopped, skipped and jumped our way off Honshu, the main island, with a very convoluted route plan.  We have to wait at the port for about 40 minutes and it's a Sunday morning.  By the time the boat pulls in there's about 16 cyclists waiting.  There's another dozen alighting.  It seems we have stumbled into some sort of cycling festival.  Lycra everywhere.  Clickety-clack of road cyclists walking around in their shoes.  "Where are you from?" a man asks.  "England" "where in England?" "Manchester" "Ahh, the Beatles!" We both start humming the bassline to Daytripper.

only bicycles and Postman Pat on this ferry

The small ferry bobs around some of the small islands in the Inland Sea before climbing, literally, through a narrow gap.  The tides have created a weird waterfall effect and the boat trembles as it gradually gets over the shoulder and back into calm waters.  It begins to rain properly.  We cruise under a huge suspension bridge.  Silhouhetted against the grey skyline is a stream of cyclists crossing the bridge in both directions.  

This is the Shimamani Kaido - a combination of bridges and islands that connect the large islands of Honshu and Shikoku and it's rated as a nice bike ride.  And since it's Golden Week, there's a lot of people here with a bit of time on their hands to get out on their bikes.  There are hundreds of people cycling.  The rain is teeming when we get off the boat.  It's teeming when we stop at the supermarket to stock up and it's still teeming when we reach the approach to that large suspension bridge we passed under earlier. Undaunted, hundreds of Japanese are out on all kinds of bikes in all kinds of clothes.  It's still warm so lots haven't even bothered to put on a rain jacket.  Come to think of it, they probably don't have one.  A cycle path leads us up beyond a bike service station that has bike rental and hotel rooms.  We seem to be going against the flow of cyclists as we finally get up onto the bridge and start a 6 kilometre crossing.  There are probably great views from this bridge but not on a day like today.  We can hardly see a thing, except that blur of bikes coming towards us.  It's fantastic and quite incredible.  Laughing, we spiral around the bike path at the other end and spot a picnic table under a roof at a 'rest stop'.  We seek shelter there and then locate a place to camp below the bridge.  Before we can start cooking the tea a group of lads appear on mama charis and all in blue capes.  They are loaded with shopping bags and boxes of food and then we realise that they aren't Japanese.  We start talking and learn they are Filipinos training as metalworkers in a nearby shipyard.  They have been stocking up at a cheap supermarket on Shikoku.  All of them are on 3-year contracts and one is about to return home.  He has bought himself a pop-up tent.  One of the lads has sat on the back of the bench and put his feet on the seat.  I'm shocked - this kind of behaviour is never seen in Japan.  I'm turning Japanese.  I think I'm turning Japanese.  I really think so.  After they head off home the rain finally eases off and stops.  This is a surprising stroke of luck.  It means we can put up the tent and get to bed and stay dry.
after all the rain my shoes have developed gills

The next few days are gloriously sunny and immensely enjoyable.  We are definitely taking part in a cycling festival and it feels wonderful.  There are hundreds of people doing this crossing on bicycles.  It's about 80km all on signposted cycleways and much of it on designated cyclepaths, so it's safe for kids.  You can ride it in a day - we take three days over it and sometimes detour onto small islands along the way.  Most of the bridges are high to allow the passage of ships, so inevitably there's a climb up to them, but usually on nicely-graded pathways.  

You get a fantastic view from such a height and an idea of how busy the Inland Sea can be.  We also find quiet sides of islands with beaches and little harbours. People here love to fish and we see lots of rod fishing from tiny coves and harbour walls at all times of the day.  It's great to see everyone out and enjoying themselves.  

A couple of times in small parks, while we're cooking dinner or eating lunch a young Japanese approaches and chats in perfect English.  The first time it's a woman visiting her parents in her home village.  The next time a young man with his daughter, also visiting parents.  These are the young people we rarely see in the countryside because they have left home and gone to work in the cities, taking their children with them.

chatting with some locals who are surprisingly under 65

We had an e-mail from our friend Natacha in Tokyo to say that both my old and new passports have arrived.  The process has taken about three weeks including the posting times.  I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders and I no longer flinch when I see a policeman.

It feels like summer has finally arrived with the holiday crowds and the sunshine.  It's getting so hot in the middle of the day we contemplate siestas.  I mean, we really need to slow down the pace a bit.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

the big one

There's a ferry from Matsuyama that drops us on an island that leads to another island that leads to another island.  The last island is the big one - Honshu.  This is Japan's largest and most daunting for anyone touring on a bicycle. 
feeling daunted
We are crossing at one end of Japan's Inland Sea, a wonderful swirl of water, dotted with islands, that fills the gap between Shikoku and Honshu.  From a suspension bridge we get a view northwards to Hiroshima.  We can't see the city but we can see the pall of low brown cloud that denotes a large urban and industrial centre.  I'd asked Kiyoka if she ever wore a face mask (she did sometimes) and why.  She explained that on some days the air pollution was not so good and referred to the pollution from China.  Now we're looking to Japan's main island and I don't think it's Chinese pollution we can see.  I can't help but wonder if the UK would look more like Japan if we hadn't been members of the European Union and been directed to clean up the air and water pollution that made our crowded country such a dirty environment to live in.  Japan easily trumps the UK on litter - I don't think we've visited a country with less litter on the streets or in the countryside.

why have an iPad when you can bark yourself

The first road we find ourselves on after our bridge crossing is small and unremittingly busy.  Sometimes there's a pavement or a footpath which we take.  We are reluctant to ride on the pavement, if only because it's usually up and down and when you cross side roads there's always a bump, even with dropped kerbs.  In short, it's slow and a pain in the arse, literally.  But this road has trucks that fill the narrow lanes in both directions and cars that all go too fast.  Our Honshu ride may feature more pavement than we prefer.

bike-unfriendly bridge
We stop for the night at a michi no eki.  This service station is unusual because the carpark is closed at 10pm - even we can understand the Japanese sign.  We know there's rain forecast so we cook tea under an arbor and pitch the tent behind shrubs after dark.  At daybreak we awake to the sound of two strimmers.  We guess they are heading our way and we really ought to bug out but before we really wake up it begins to rain.  We immediately begin to snooze.  Eventually the rain drives the strimmers to take shelter.  Saved by the rain.  When it finally does stop, we hang the tent out to dry and make breakfast.  We check the map.  There is no alternative but to ride this coastal road, busy or not.  The road leads through small town after small town in one long urban sprawl.  It means there's always a footpath which we can ride.  We do.  It makes for a slow and dull day, happily interrupted by a detour to see an old bridge, and finally we reach our destination - a short ferry ride takes us to Mie Jima, a small island with a high peak and lots of trees.  The ferry is busy in both directions.  There are two ferry companies running and we notice a few western tourists too.  This place is only a bus ride from Hiroshima, so that explains the number of tourists.  It is Golden Week - a week long national holiday that lasts a fortnight when everyone is visiting family and going somewhere for a jolly.  The drawcard here is one of Japan's top three iconic views.  Once on the ferry we cling to the rail and gaze out across the water, littered with bamboo rafts where shellfish are being cultivated.  As we approach the island our boat makes a wide arc towards the dock, providing all the passengers with a closer view of the tori, the typical gateway to a Japanese temple.  What makes this one interesting is that it stands out in the water, off shore from the temple so at high tide it looks like its floating on the water..........or just standing in it.  Anyway, the tori is the thing. Described as vermilion in our guidebook, it looks a distinct satsuma orange to me.
look! it floats!
Alighting from the boat we see so many white faces in the queue to head back it's shocking.  Where have all these foreigners come from?? And how come they're so big? We follow the well-worn trail down to the temple complex, along the water's edge, for our own version of this iconic image.  The place is teeming with tourists and it quite overwhelms me.  Gayle, unfazed, snaps away and wanders off, leaving me to fend off tame but hungry deer from chewing our panniers.  By sunset the crowd has thinned and the hubbub has mellowed to a more relaxing hum.  We go off in search of a camping place, find one quickly at the end of a track along the waterfront, and then set to cooking dinner.  With night falling the place has emptied out.  There are only a few folk who are clearly staying in one of the small hotels nearby.  The tori is floodlit and looks fabulous.  We watch, dismay mixed with amusement, as a small cruiser with a bow full of camera-wielding tourists, glides in from out of the blackness and slips slowly through the gateway.  Didn't get that close-upshot? No worries, as the captain turns the boat and glides through it once again.  Crass.

We enjoy our breakfast after a peaceful night here, before crossing back to the mainland and continuing up the road to Hiroshima.  The roads are quiet enough - things seem to start slowly in Japanese cities - and we get into the city centre easily.  Of course there's only one reason to come here as a tourist and that's to visit the Peace Memorial Park and Museum.  We sit on a bench and eat our lunch in front of the A-bomb dome, a ruined building that has been left as a mark of the destruction caused by the bomb dropped on 6th August 1945. Despite being only a few hundred metres from the epicentre, the building somehow survived.  Tourists pose to be photographed in front of the ruin. The park itself is overrun with schoolchildren.  They are all being taken through the museum and small groups are being led by volunteer guides, elderly people who lived in Hiroshima in 1945.  We are disappointed by the museum because half of it is closed for refurbishment.  We can see the section devoted to describing what happened and the effects of the bomb - something we are familiar with but it bears retelling.  There are some new facts to learn: the bomb detonated 600 metres above the city for a wider impact; of the 50kg of uranium used in the bomb only 1kg actually 'exploded'; many schoolchildren died because they had been mobilised to demolish buildings to create firebreaks in the city in anticipation of fire-bombing; one in ten of the victims were Korean forced labourers. The effects of radiation exposure were not understood at the time and in the seven years following Japan's surrender, when the Americans governed the country, information about victims suffering from radiation was not published.  What we don't get is the context or an understanding of what led up to the bomb. And considering how every schoolchild in the country is brought here, it would be interesting to see what they are taught.  Japan has a notorious reputation for revisionist history.  There is one clear message from this museum - how civilians become victims of war. 

the A-bomb Dome - now surrounded by a modern bustling city

We stay in a hotel which we have booked online - something we don't like to do but this week is Golden Week when three or four national holidays are strung together, the schools, banks and government offices close and everyone goes on holiday.  It's a time to visit family.  The hotel room has beds. Luxury.  I wonder if Japanese businessmen complain about the soft mattresses.....
even les gendarmes get the cartoon treatment