Wednesday, 8 April 2015

a cunning plan

"You know why there's always moss in a traditional Japanese Garden?" asks Gayle.
"No. Why?" She is the Expedition Horticulturalist.
"Because it's always bleeding raining."
We are sitting in a mock castle overlooking tennis courts and a baseball field.  Our tent is hanging on a washing line but it's not drying out.  A damp drizzle has replaced the heavy rain of the night that left us a little waterlogged on the golf course in Shikoku.  We've been wanting to camp on a golf course ever since we got to Japan but this is the first time.  However, it's not a normal course.  The holes are rather short and each pin has a string basket.  Before everyone went home to their nice dry houses we had watched some people play what can only be described as "Shuttlecock Golf".  Park games in Japan are Something Else.
this couple were having a picnic lunch at the same place and gave us some fabulous local oranges

The day we left Beppu we met a friendly Canadian teaching English in nearby Oita.  He comes up and chats to us for a while before warning us that it would rain at 3 o'clock.  It is sunnyish, we have to buy food, we have to photograph the gorgeous cherry blossom, we have to look in that bike shop, we have to stop for a choc ice.  And anyway, in the end he turns out be wrong about the rain.  It is 4 o'clock.  We are metres from a michi o neki (road station is easier to spell, but lacks the evokative something or other that these places hold), when the skies open, as they say, and deposit a huge amount of water on our heads.  We seek shelter under the eaves of the toilets.  The road station has failed us.  There's no arbor, no grassy lawn.  Just a shop, a toilet and a carpark.  And a smoking shelter.  But hang on, what's above the smoking zone and vending machines?  A deck, with a roof.  It'll have to do.  We rig up the tent and watch as the rain obliterates everything from view.  Somewhere out there is Shikoku, our next destination.  There are others who stay the night here.  Two couples in camper vans and an old couple in an ordinary van.  During the night a kissing couple climb up 'for the view' and then scurry away giggling when they discover our bikes and tent.

The ferry to Shikoku, the next of Japan's Big Four islands, takes just over an hour and deposits us at the end of a hilly peninsula.  Hilly, I said.  We climb up and down along a road that has been designated a cycling route for tourists.  A sky blue line has been painted down the side of the road.  Other than that, you're on your own to do battle with cars that pass too closely for comfort.  The Japanese cycle a lot in towns and cities, on the pavements.  We occasionally see road cyclists out for a day ride.  But it is obvious that drivers are not accustomed to slow cyclists lumbering about on the road in front of them.  We sometimes take to the footpath, but it is not in very good condition.  The Melody Road turns out to have a feature we really should have guessed but it comes as quite a surprise when the cars driving past us produce a tune.  The same tune.  There are horizontal grooves on the road spaced in such a way that driving over them produces a melodious vibration.  Groovy.  The tune appears to be Move Closer by Phyllis Nelson.  We are very happy to find the sports park where we can stop for the day and camp on the golf course.
tennis anyone?
But the rain.  A family joins us in our mock castle when the drizzle finally stops mid-morning.  We chat.  They leave us their chocolates.  Sorry kids, but the chocolates are great and give us a much needed lift.  We hurtle along all afternoon and the sun is now out and we head inland upstream of a river to the worst tunnel we've ever entered.  It's old and low and badly lit and very very long and the pavement is quite narrow.  And it's busy.  We aren't prepared to find an alternative route and can't see one on our road map in any case.  Out the other end we roll down to Ozu, a very pleasant little town at a junction of rivers with a pretty old castle hidden by a monstrous concrete town hall built right slam in front of it.  Sometimes the Japanese get it very right.  But sometimes they get it very wrong.  We camp by one of the multitude of water channels built to irrigate the surrounding fields and explore a bit more the next day, which is also sunny.  Perhaps we have shaken off the rain? 

Ozu castle from the back side
We decide to cross Shikoku to the south coast following some of the rivers that cut through the mountains.  We notice that for some rivers there are small roads running along the opposite riverbank to the main road.  The plan is a success and we enjoy several days of magical cycling through lovely valleys and tiny villages. 

"Gayle, what are them flowers up there?"
The heavy night rain has brought down much of the cherry blossom, but there are plenty of other flowers blooming now.
"Oooooh, look at those.  What are they?"
The riverside route allows us to climb steadily following the Hijikawa upstream.  We pass a reservoir where construction work is destroying the peace and serenity of the valley. But not for long. Our empty country road winds up a hill for a bit, giving a view back towards Ozu, before plunging back down to the river.

Gayle wobbles a bit and shouts out. She is enjoying the scenery so much she hasn't noticed the snake coiled up on the road and rides right over it.  The villages have a mixture of lovely old houses and new ones of varying architectural worth.  Most are bungalows in the traditional style.  The houses look cluttered and untidy with farming junk and household bits and bobs but there's often a small garden or pots and small trees or bushes with flowers.
"Gayle, I really like those.  Do you know the name for them?
"Azaleas".  Some horticulturalist.
It rains in the night.  We are camped in the playground of a school, in a very narrow side valley.  It's either here or in a small carpark by the river and we can't agree at first where to camp.  It doesn't make any difference.  There's no hiding from the rain.  The next morning we find somewhere to hang the tent out to dry and have breakfast before continuing what turns out to be a really wonderful ride through gorgeous scenery.

We have an easy pass that takes us to another river which will finally lead us out to the sea.  Each day there are one or two road stations where we can buy or cook our lunch.  No convenience stores, only small villages and lots of small-scale farming being done by septuagenarians.  It's unusual to see any young people farming, unless the farm is large.  We stop and camp in a small town for a couple of nights - rain on the first night lasting till about 9 in the morning and convincing us we deserved a rest.  When we finally get the tent dry we nosey over to the tourist information office at the train station to ask about wi-fi.  Without hesitation they give us their office wi-fi password.  And there's electricity and there's a free t-shirt each and a souvenir bag.  We must be looking really rough - I reckon it's the haircut Gayle gave me.  Our camp down by the river is a great spot with good drainage.  This seems important when it rains for the fifth night out of six.  Sod the view, how's the drainage?  At dusk some very large fish are leaping.  At nightfall the trains passing by on the other side of the river light up our tent.  
this house was empty - a rarity

Thursday, 2 April 2015

what's it all about?

Gayle's looking through leaflets in the train station tourist information office. I'm in the concourse watching four businessmen who have just walked in.  Two are holding small suitcases while the other two are carrying small but elegant paper bags - the kind you would be given if you bought fancy perfume.  There then follows what could only be a sketch from Monty Python - the Kow-Tow Off: each pair taking it in turns to bow.  Some words of thanks and the gifts are presented. The receivers bow.  The givers bow.  The receivers bow back. Some words of thanks.  The listeners bow.  The speakers bow back. A slight pause and then words of farewell? The departing bow.  The staying bow back.  The departing bow lower.  The staying bow even lower.  Then one of them throws a dummy, feinting a bow but staying upright at the last moment and everyone is suddenly thrown off rhythmn and chaotic bowing in no particular order ensues, until finally the stayers manage to back away and out the door.  The two guys catching their train take out handkerchiefs and mop the sweat off their brows.  It was a close match but I guess they came out of it without losing any face.

Around the hostel are some small shopping arcades and streets with bars and small shops selling bric a brac, clothing, vinyl records.  The record shop has covers on display of Lee Morgan, Billy Bragg, Freddie Hubbard and The Jam.  It looks like my record collection. But what's missing? Mmmm.  Soul. We half wonder what the nightlife is like in the cities.  But we're not that interested and we don't have the cash anyway to find out.  I guess that's one downside of visiting a country as penny-pinching long-distance cyclists - there are some aspects of Japanese culture that will just pass us by.  The main one is the food - as it's cheaper for us to self-cater.  

At the hostel there's a mix of Japanese travellers of all ages, including a Japanese man so large he just has to be a sumo wrestler.  We chat to a young French couple, Xabi and Ivy, and Gayle asks them why they have come to Japan.   Xabi has been a big fan of manga and wanted to discover the country behind this art form.  Manga is art? Discuss. The hostel is full of books - comic books.  Each convenience store features a man of indeterminate age standing at the magazine counter reading a manga book.  The books are full of women with breasts like balloons and waists that disappear and make us wonder what it's like for young women to grow up in such a world.  The "girly" magazines that are prominently displayed in the convenience stores also seem to feature young girls showing their knickers - creepy. Xabi is thinking through a theory about how the Japanese are trying to perpetuate a state of infantilism. Picure fantasy books are part of this.  But why? What's it all about? (A fortnight after this conversation my sister wrote to us and mentioned going to see an anime from the Ghibli Studio with our nephew, the Tale of Princess Kaguya.  She commented on how their films nearly always feature a little girl as the main character.  I can only assume that she isn't always flashing her knickers. The princess I mean, not my sister.)

Another night we talk to Jorg and Viviana who are on a bigger trip visiting several countries in too short a time.  Jorg wants to know when we have been camping where do we put our rubbish.  I laugh.  This began in Taiwan and is probably a Japanese thing - there are no public litter bins anywhere.  But there is rarely any public litter either.  As we cannot take it home, we tend to use the recycling bins outside convenience stores or next to vending machines.  And what's with the face masks?  We've gotten used to seeing so many people wearing face masks but actually, when you think about it, it's really quite alarming.  I can think of nothing more alienating than not being able to look at someone in the face when I'm talking to them, even if I don't understand their language.  Or especially when I don't understand their language.  All we see are eyes.  Shop staff mainly, but we see people driving around wearing facemasks, postmen, little old ladies riding bikes, kids on their way to school.  I don't want to go all Jack Straw, but it really seems a disurbing aspect of Japanese society.  But for the Japanese it's probably thought of as highly practical and simply effective preventative measure in a crowded country.  If you have a cold and you don't want to infect others, or you don't have a cold and you don't want to catch one, then wear a face mask.  Someone has pointed out that in a country where sick leave from work is frowned upon, and at times when you cannot afford to lose your job, then wearing a facemask is a small price to pay for job security. Unionize!

On the way to the post office we walk past a hairdresser's.  There's one for every 50 people in Japan. In some villages we've seen two hairdresser's and no food shops.  This one is called "L'Oeuf".  It reflects another srtiking trend in Japan for all things French, regardless of what it actually means.  There is also a huge amount of signage in English - the American kind.  We are surprised - it feels slightly less disorientating when you can read shop names on the city streets.  Our favourite is the book chain "Book Off". Très drôle.

did I mention the cherry blossom?

I am posting my passport to the UK to get a new one - it's the quickest and easiest way to renew - because I have only two clean pages left.  I have kept a colour photocopy of my photo page and Japanese immigration stamps. The woman at the post office looks only briefly appalled that I want to post my passport to the UK and then promptly produces an EMS card envelope for me.  It costs £7 and will take four days to arrive.  When I walk out of the post office I feel rather appalled myself.  Am I doing the right thing?