Tuesday, 16 June 2015

sailing away

tallying up the accommodation costs
After a day riding out of the city we suddenly find ourselves in an empty park on a Friday night.  Just us and the mosquitoes.  The night is hot and airless.  Even though we have both washed in the toilets, we still feel sweaty and dirty.  The heat has been cranking up gradually but it's the humidity that gets us.  Come morning and the park is full of families with young children all playing on the swings, slides, grappling nets and zip wires.  We head down to the big river where we pick up a bike path full of men in lycra on road bikes.  Less than a day's ride out of central Tokyo and we are surrounded by fields once again.  It's wonderful cycling heading out towards the sea. The sun blazes and is tempered by the cool wind coming off the river.  Mid-afternoon we come to a small park with benches in the shade and stop for a break.  The wind is sooo good that we decide to stop for the night. 
photo op with a Sunday cycle posse

happy anglers
We have a bit of spare time before catching the ferry north to Hokkaido.  We turn north towards Mito city and take a bike path alongside a reservoir.  As usual around water there's always some fishermen.  It's a Sunday so there are many out today, some with three or four rods set up.  We've no idea if anyone ever catches anything until we come across three guys trying to photograph their catch - an absolutely enormous fish that would keep the family in sashimi for a week.  Away from the water we find ourselves on back country roads with farmers busy at work.  A lot of the land is given over to rice paddies, but there are all kinds of crops being grown in small plots.  Looking for somewhere to camp we begin following a river that runs into Mito city.  Before we know it we're in a park in the city centre, but by nightfall it's emptied out of dogwalkers and joggers and we are left to quietly camp on a grassy knoll.  Mito's drawcard is a large Japanese garden but it turns out that it's planted out with a lot of plum trees that blossom in the Spring - we're only two months too late.  
hydrangeas are everywhere now

The ride to the port is pleasant and easy and it's no problem getting tickets for this evening's ferry.  We are going economy - sleeping on tatami mats in a large room - but we know it'll be quiet - this is Japan.  There's a Dutch couple in a tiny camper van - only enough space to lie down.  We reckon there's a big market to be exploited in Japanese tourism - renting out campervans to foreigners - and they tell us that there's only one Japanese company that has a website in English.  We meet Teriyaki who is on his bicycle, heading home after a week away. 
more photo ops
Teriyaki is obviously not his name but when we ask he gives us his full name which amounts to about nine syllables, so really he stands no chance with us.  He looks in (mock?) horror at our loaded bikes.  He is carrying a knapsack and what looks like a bag of rice strapped to his rack.  Not many people here get what we're doing, especially the cyclists.  The day before we met a group of cyclists and they assumed we had flown to Japan to cycle around and they looked amazed when we said we had been here for four months.  It took a while before they could finally grasp that we had travelled from Europe over the last three years.  Probably thought we were millionaires.  We wish.

two jolly non-millionaires

The boat sails on time.  It'll take 19 hours to reach Hokkaido, so we take advantage of the facilities - a nice sauna and baths.  I wonder when the ship starts rocking would you notice if you're soaking in the bath?

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Tokyo and bust

It's hard to imagine that cycling into a metropolitan area of over 30 million people might be easy, especially with a small-scale map, but getting to Sandy and Seth's house in the western suburbs is a doddle.  Our campsite beside one of the city's reservoirs after leaving Mount Fuji leaves us a roll down into the urban mass where we find a quiet road leading to a river.  And riversides in Japanese cities usually mean bike paths and parks.  This one is no exception.  The day is hot and humid so we take our time and stop regularly before checking a detailed map in a convenience store to make sure we don't fluff the finish. 
stained glass in park toilets
 Addresses in Japan are annoyingly made up of numbers.  There's a district or borough name, a neighbourhood number, a street number and then a house number.  Or is is the house number first, then the street, then the block? It seems that Google Maps isn't sure either because we find ourselves in an estate of newish houses but on the wrong side of the railway tracks.  We only know this because we ask a man just getting home from work and he kindly gets his tablet out and shows us where we need to go.

Seth and Sandy have been living here with their two kids, Cody and Maya, for eight years, teaching at an international school.  Keen travellers and potential bike tourers, they have plenty of questions.  Sandy's are the hard ones.  Do we get tired of eating the same food? What about when it rains?  We are eating a fabulous barbecue and salad minutes after arriving.  Seth met Sandy in Ecuador when he got his first job out of the States and hearing them talk about places we know whets our appetites for returning there one day with our bicycles.  They're very thoughtful hosts and give us railcards to use on the rail network into the city and explain how to work out the myriad options for returning.  
daily commute
Seth explains the Mitaka Rule: if our train pulls into Mitaka station and there's another train waiting on the other platform then get off the train and step onto the other.  If there's no train, then stay on.  We've been on loads of city transport systems but how can you fail to be daunted when passing through Shinjuku station which is estimated to handle three million passengers a day?  Seth also tells us that if we just look up at any of the information boards on the trains or in the stations then someone will approach and ask if we need help.  His point is proven within five minutes of us getting to the station.  It's not like London.
Sandy and Seth - we couldn't wish for a warmer welcome

train station bike parking
Although we told everyone who asked on this journey that our destination is Tokyo, we decided long ago that this was unimportant.  Tokyo represents Japan - one of the countries we most wanted to visit on this journey.  Long ago we knew it wouldn't be the end of our ride.  Ultimately, Tokyo holds little fascination for us.  It's a big new city with some sights and lots of shopping.  
One thing we have learnt is that the city was more or less razed to the ground by fire bombing at the end of the war - it's something neither of us knew about the Pacific War with the America.  When we awake on our first morning it is raining.  Gayle has shaken me awake.  "John! John!" The bed is shaking.  The room is shaking.  The house is shaking.  What time is it? Just before six. Did the earth move for you? Gayle asks.

We head off to the Ginza because, well, we like the sound of it, and we need to call in at a tourist office to get maps.  Walking over to the Imperial Palace to visit the gardens we pass through the surrounding park which has a lot of homeless fellas all stretched out snoozing in the shade of trees on the immaculately cut grass. 
They can't sleep here at night, but there are a couple of designated spots nearby where soup kitchens serve food.  Another day we see a Christian group doing this.  Can't imagine such a thing in the Royal Parks of London.  The Emperor has distanced himself from his father's era by refusing to visit graves of generals buried at the main Shinto shrine and has also been quoted offering remorse for Japan's war crimes.  A while ago we chatted to a woman who mentioned Queen Elizabeth.  We explained that not all Britons like the Royal Family and she said it was the same about the Emperor in Japan. He doesn't even pay any taxes!

We visit Natacha, a friend we made a few years ago in a hostel in Kyrgyzstan.  She was travelling on her way to Japan to teach English and has been here ever since.  She is now married and in April gave birth to Nina.  Nina is a very sweet baby with a cyclist's appetite.  Natacha hasn't changed at all.  She takes us out for lunch and a walk around her neighbourhood.  Tokyo, like many big cities, seems to have subsumed surrounding towns which all centre around the train station. 
Nina and Natacha
This is where you'll normally find all the shops and restaurants and bars.  We go to a noodle bar where salarymen - the name given to office workers here - are queuing up for their lunch.  Natacha explains that the noodle restaurants are traditionally mens' domain.  Back in March she kindly agreed to let me use her address for my passport renewal and when DHL duly turned up with the goods two weeks after Nina was born she was so immersed in her new life as a sleep-deprived mother that she almost turned them away.  Thankfully her husband remembered something about it.  And now I no longer have to shrink away when there is any sign of a gendarme in the vicinity.  I am a legitimate tourist once more.  Sort of.  The UK passport office saw fit to cut the corners off my old passport which still has my Japanese visa in it...........

second-hand manga store
Before we leave Seth and Sandy's they fill our panniers with supplies for the road.  Their Canadian neighbours are leaving Japan and clearing their cupboards out so we are the lucky recipients of instant mash and quinoa and two tins of chicken.  We say our farewells after a breakfast of Sandy's fantastic granola and banana bread - her home cooking is so good - and we take a route that Seth knows well - another riverside path that heads into the city.  
that's how it's supposed to look
At some point we lose the river, as Seth warned us, but pick it up further on and wind our way to the eastern side of the centre.  We have booked a hostel on that side to break the journey and give us an opportunity to visit the National Museum, but by the time we reach it our hearts are not in it and instead we mooch over to the hostel.  It's busy, but comfy.  An American couple advise us about the tinned chicken we are about to eat in a salad - it's better seared than eaten straight out of the tin.  Sometimes it can taste like cat food, Corey warns with a laugh.

It's time to take stock of our financial situation and face up to Reality.  It seems on some days the money just falls through your hands in Japan.  After almost three years on the road the old bank account is looking a tad scrawny.   We are looking at teaching english somewhere in East Asia, for the experience, for the money, for a way of continuing this journey and of finding a way to fund future journeys.  Work.  With a shudder we head out of Tokyo. Riding out of one of the biggest cities in the world is not dull nor a drag - it's part of a wild adventure.