Saturday, 28 February 2015

living on ice-cream and chocolate kisses

Our tour of Okinawa begins properly from the southern tip of the island, as by now we've already explored the built-up area around Naha on the west coast.  On a blustery wet day we cycle along the south coast on quiet roads and stop in the afternoon at the memorial park to remember the victims of the Battle of Okinawa.  The Japanese only surrendered to the Americans after two and a half months of fighting on the island.  The death toll is staggering: 77,000 Japanese soldiers and 14,500 US.  But the truly frightening statistic is the 149,000 civilians who also died.  To put this in perspective, that's more than the death toll at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.  It was this battle that probably sealed the fate of those victims of the atomic bombs - the Americans did not want a protracted battle on Japanese soil.  I wonder what the Okinawans make of all this - whether they consider themselves as sacrifial lambs used by the Japanese military to slow the American advance or angry at the deaths caused by the American invasion.  It seems the park has been created by the Okinawans themselves rather than the Japanese government.  In the park there is a garden with stone tablets engraved with the name of every known victim, including some Korean and British.  We walk around and look out to sea. 

Along the coast we come to a quiet beach where our tourist map indicates free camping.  It's at the end of a little road and there are only a couple on the beach when we roll up.  It's quiet, the weather has brightened, we pitch the tent.  A couple of fisherman turn up at sunset as the tide is turning.  Later in the night we see someone wading in the shallows with a torch - looking for what? shellfish, crabs?  The place is so nice that the next night we return to the same spot.  Further along the coast we watch two fishermen at work as the tide reaches its highest point.  One wades slowly into the water with a net in his hand.  

After waiting and watching he hurls the net into the water and it spreads out into a large circle before the weights drag it downwards.  He hauls the net back with the rope attached to the centre.  He pulls it out - there are a couple of tiddlers thrashing around.  The other man has been watching from the shore, from up above, and he now wades in.  He stands still for a long time and then quickly moves into the sea up to his waist and throws his net out.  When he pullls it out of the water it is bulging with fish.  He makes it look easy.  It's incredible.  He doesn't return to the water - just pours his catch into a bucket and drives off home.

We ride up the east coast of the island and take the bridges to some small outlying ones before crossing back to the west coast at the lowest point on the central ridge.  The weather is sunny and windy and makes for easy days.  We camp on the beach or tucked away in sheltered spots next to farmland.  There seems to be a lot of small-scale farming across the island and all the vegetables in the shops we've seen look like something entered in 'Best of Show'.  We've begun cooking once again in the evenings and the vegetables are expensive, whilst everything else seems quite affordable.  For lunch we've been eating bento boxes from convenience stores or supermarkets - take-away ready meals.  And the occasional choc-ice, of course. 

Okinawa is said to be an americanised version of Japan, but we're not sure what this means.  Some people speak English. You can buy Spam in the supermarket and get a 'taco rice' in some cafes.  There are baseball fields in every village, at every school.  One Sunday we sit and eat our lunch whilst watching a game - it's a bit dull with each innings passing quickly.  But the Japanese have been playing baseball since the early 1900's and it's big on the mainland.  Some of the professional teams are having their spring training here.  No, we'll have to wait until we get to the mainland before we can compare.

Monday, 16 February 2015

another side of the island

and there's Spam in the supermarkets
Before we arrived in Okinawa we had written to Couch Surfing hosts and got a positive replay from Erik.  He could host us three nights, no problem, and suggested we meet outside Starbucks in the American Village.  Yes, you guessed, Erik isn't Japanese.  He's a medic working in the US Navy and has lived in Japan for over ten years, although only came to Okinawa about 18 months ago.  He arrives late to meet us because he forgot we were coming.  This feels embarrassing because we are probably putting him out although clearly it's not our fault.  Effortlessly he whips up some lovely food for us, with leftover coq au vin and fresh salad and wonderful bread which we cannot but enjoy despite the fact that there's only enough for us two and Erik has to make do with instant noodles.  When he kindly offers us his own bed, we decline and opt for the airbed in the lounge.  


We aren't Erik's only guests.  A bit later a young Korean couple return from a day trip and we chat a little with them.  Erik seems a little quiet and reserved at first but finally warms up and we're just not sure if we've messed up his evening or what, although he assures us that we haven't.  Erik started hosting with Couch Surfing last autumn and has had over a hundred guests in this short time.   Now we understand a little more about how the evening started. Erik's not surfed himself but we think he should - especially if his trip to Europe comes off.  In the night the airbed slowly deflates and Erik's two cats race about jumping up on the bed chasing each other.   We wobble together as if on a waterbed and if one of us turns over the other is suddenly thrust in another direction.  Finally we switch to our thermarests but there's no escaping the crazy cats.
ah, that must be Sunset Beach then
The next day we get to talk more with Erik.  He tells us that there are about 50,000 Americans, service personnel and families, living on Okinawa.  He used to be based near Nagasaki on the mainland where he married and had two children with his Japanese wife. They are now divorced and Erik has difficulty getting access to see his children, although they do live here on the island too. He thinks that the Americans get on okay with the locals despite widely-publicised anger at crimes committed by American servicemen in past years.  The bases provide employment and these days, with China gnashing its teeth, maybe it's good to have a friend on hand...? It's only when we look at a satellite image on Google Maps that we realise how much land is used up by the bases.  Some of them are huge.
a special lunch date
When we leave Erik's we have a dinner date with a Japanese friend that Gayle made when we were hanging out in a hostel in Samarkhand back in May.  Hitoshi is retired and lives in Kawasaki when he's not travelling.  He got in touch as soon as he saw we were coming to Japan and suggested we meet for lunch in Naha, the main city on the island.  He's about to head off to India for 2 months on his first visit there and we think he might just be coming to Okinawa to see us.  We are delighted and slightly horrified that someone would do this.  Gayle remembers talking a few times with Hitoshi about different countries and he seemed normal enough.  But is he?? Well, yes, he is, and generous too.  We meet on the main tourist street in Naha and he leads us with our bikes to an indoor market area and to the fish market.  "You can eat raw fish, can't you?" he asks.  "Yes," we both say, although we've never actually done it before.  Hitoshi takes us inside to inspect the huge lobsters flicking their antenna around, obese clams writhe in their shells, and fat fresh fish lounge on the ice before us.  Hitoshi has already explained to us: lunch is on him.He chooses some fish and we are led upstairs to a table while the food is prepared. Here we catch up with Hitoshi.  He wants to know how many countries Gayle has visited.  "88, if you count England, Wales and Scotland as three.  And you?" "India and Sri Lanka will be 89 and 90" he replies with a smile.  Hitoshi used to work for a Japanese oil company and worked abroad for many years.  He learnt English on a crash course in Brighton over thirty years ago.  The food arrives - a large platter of shashimi, raw fish and shell fish sliced with soy sauce and wasabi on the side. 
We happily tuck in.  There is a mention of blowfish and I wonder if this is the highly toxic fish that can kill if not prepared properly.  At the same moment my right hand and forearm go numb.  But I shift around and the feeling comes back.  And I keep eating and I'm alive.  I'm alive and I can eat raw fish and it's all rather tasty.  Afterwards, Hitoshi orders a bowl of pork noodles and some rice to make sure we are not hungry.  We are not hungry after all this and after more conversation and an invitation to visit when we get to Tokyo, we part ways.  Tonight we camp wild at the most southerly cape on the island, close to a lighthouse.  We spotted it on the flight - a nice bit of land sticking into the ocean.  It's a lovely spot and far removed from the tourist street we were on at lunchtime.

Friday, 13 February 2015


After a short flight and a struggle with our baggage through customs because there are no trolleys ("this is the LCC terminal", the customs officer politely inform us - in other words, if you must be so cheap.....), we find ourselves outside the "normal" domestic terminal.  Okinawa, Japan.  It's exciting to arrive by plane but a little nerve-wracking when you unpack the bikes because you know you could've done it better and how were the bikes handled?  The bikes are slowly rebuilt by me while Gayle goes in search of cash and maps.  After quite a long time we finally ride off into the wind and sunshine into Naha city, stopping for a quick pot noodle before continuing to Tomomi's house.  Gayle has sketched directions on a scrap of paper - neither of us understand our host family's address: a series of hyphenated numbers and a district.  Apparently road names are rare in Japan.

The roads are busy but silent, almost silent.  Cars swish by.  Buses glide past.  No noisy scooters.  No noise.  The cars look odd - like toy cars designed by 5 year-olds. But most noticeably there is hardly a sound from any of them.  It's wonderful and scary at the same time - cars overtake without you hearing them coming.  But hang on, is that car waiting, pausing? Yep, polite and careful drivers. Oooh, so nice.  And finally, another country driving on the right side of the road.  Not the right side, the left side. The correct side.

add your own caption
We reach our destination without a hitch - Gayle's map is perfect.  When we do stop to consult our tourist map an old man approaches and asks in English if we need any help.  At the house we are greeted by Aran, the youngest of the family.  He's home alone and we feel a little awkward at first as he says very little and our Japanese is not much more than hello and thank you.  But he shows us in and invites us to sit down.  His father, Masao, comes home and puts us at ease because he speaks English.  He's a translator, translating technical magazines and books into Japanese, and more impressively he sometimes turns his hand to a project to test his own translations.  
Tomomi arrives with her mum and lots more children.  There's Marin, their daughter, and three cousins.  Takito is the least shy simply because his English is good.  He's extremely polite - keeps nodding his head, which is short-hand for bowing - ahhh, Japanese etiquette. Bow to your elders, bow in thanks, bow in greeting, you can feel like a nodding dog quite quickly.  Tomomi and Masao may not be a typical Japanese couple - they are hosting us through Warm Showers -  but it's hard to judge this when they are the first family we meet.  While we are invited to relax in the lounge Masao sets to work mixing dough and preparing the dinner with Tomomi's mum.  We are all soon recruited to help make what we call baozi (stuffed dumplings), enveloping the filling in circles of rolled-out dough and pinching the joints together.  After a little steaming we then tuck in with vinegar and mustard on the side.

We sleep in a room that is really just a raised platform in one half of the lounge, covered with a tatami (reed mat), and partitioned off by sliding wooden doors lined in paper.  The paper allows light to enter but gives privacy.  We sleep well on mattresses unrolled on the mat and when we awake everyone has gone to work or school. Masao works from home and suggests we visit the nearby beach as it's a lovely sunny day, so we do. 
learning some useful Japanese phrases

In the evening we join the family around the low table in the lounge for a delicious hotpot of chicken, mushrooms and various vegetables.  A friend of Tomomi and Masao joins us - he has travelled a bit and cycled through South America.  He's an environmentalist and was doing assessments for a development company on the island but gave it up because of the inevitable conflicts of interest.  Okinawa remained under US control after the war until 1972 when it was finally handed back to the Japanese government.  There remains a strong US military presence on the island as there are several air bases and a naval port here.  We ask what the feeling is about this and after some pause Masao replies "It's mixed.  It's very complicated." Masao is from Tokyo and came here to study.  Tomomi is from Okinawa and they met at university.  The island has its own dialect, and a cultural tradition distinct from Japan which is slowly diminishing, although preserved a little for tourists.  Most of the tourists come from China, and then Korea and Taiwan.  We are surprised.  Regretfully, we cannot stay longer as the family also host guests for local running events and they have a runner coming from Hong Kong the next day.  Tomomi insists we return before we leave the island and we are keen to until we realise that will probably catch a ferry from the port in the north of the island. Still, we've had a good introduction to the country.

can't beat a picnic bench for lunch

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

up and over and out

Leaving Yilan we come to switchbacks almost as soon as the city outskirts have passed.  The road seems quiet - there's an expressway that tunnels through the mountains to Taipei - just us and a few trucks who insist on going the hard way, over the top.  We plod upwards and hope the grey skies do not mean rain.  We seem to climb into the drizzle and are joined by a man and his son cycling towards Taichung.  They will be staying with family tonight in Taipei, the father tells us.  Will you be camping, he asks?  We were kind of hoping he was leading up to an invitation to join them. We'll be camping, we reply.  It's our last wild camp in Taiwan and it might be our worst.  The road has got busier and in the afternoon we are on our second climb of the day.  It's a long slow pull up into the rainy forest, trucks and buses reminding us that Taipei is not so far away.  But too far for us.   We camp on a sliver of land beside the road, in a spot that somehow avoids being fully lit up by the vehicles in the dark.  It doesn't stop raining and we pack the tent wet in the morning.
jolly cyclists in the rain

Happily our ride into Taipei is easy.  We soon reach the pass and descend into the outskirts of the city on another dreary morning.  True to form the sun tries to break through and when we get onto the bike path that runs along all of Taipei's riversides we soon find a place to put the tent up to dry.  The ride into the city centre is easy thanks to this river route and by early afternoon we are settled in our hostel.  Before tea we have got ourselves two bike boxes from a local shop and are making a shopping list of things we'll need before we fly to Okinawa.


Originally we planned to see quite a few things in Taipei, including the national collection of Chinese art brought here by the KMT.  But in the end we spend most of our time doing maintenance tasks and catching up on the internet.  We collect a little parcel sent from my mum and dad so that we can start learning Japanese.  We sift through our things and send home a bigger parcel of items.  We have a 20kg baggage limit, 20kg limit for the bikes and 10kg limit for our carry-on luggage for our flight to Japan.  The bikes must be in boxes not exceeding total dimensions of 203cm.  This latter requirement drives me to distraction because I have to strip down my bike to the frame to check it will fit.  It just doesn't quite make it but I think it will be okay.

so many rules.....

We do some sight-seeing one day, walking a bit through the downtown, but our hearts, or maybe our legs, aren't into any further exploration.  At the hostel there are a couple of Canadians to chat to. One, Cameron, is teaching English at a university in Chengdu, and we have a couple of evenings chattering away.  A couple from Singapore arrive and want to party the weekend away.  I am wishing it away, counting the days to the flight and getting the bikes rebuilt in Japan.  We swap out Gayle's old tyre and leave it behind - our last Marathon XR which has done 33,000 km and lasted 5 years.  The brakes all get overhauled, new chains fitted.  Is there anything else??


We take the scenic route to the airport, first riding out on a bike path to the coast.  It's longer than the road but there are no traffic lights and no cars and Gayle is carrying an extra-wide load - our two folded bike boxes.  The rain holds off and we arrive at about 4 o'clock with the intention of sleeping overnight in the departures hall.  Cameron is there for his flight back to Chengdu so we catch up in the food court before finally saying our farewells.
About two hours later the bikes are both boxed up.  Gayle goes off to wander and I weigh our stuff.  Both bike boxes are overweight.  It's the actual boxes that make them overweight.  Stupid.  I have to reopen the boxes and remove saddles and pedals and tools. 

Hello Kitty banned in the airport

Our flight is at 9.15am so we set the alarm for 6.30am  No-one bothers us sleeping on the floor in a corner of the departures hall.  When we get to check-in our passports are checked for Japanese visas which we don't have.  We are told we need an onward or return ticket if we plan to arrive without a visa.  We explain that we plan to take a ferry to Korea, but we don't know when.  We're half asleep and after being concerned about all our baggage it's the visa rules that are the problem.  The check-in staff say they will have to ask Japanese immigration for approval before checking us in.  So naturally we have to wait to the last.  Gayle meanwhile starts to explain about our journey and our plans.  One of the staff asks us a few questions and we start saying that we only want 90 days in Japan.  He phones Japanese immigration again and we are given the nod. We can fly to Okinawa.  If only we could cycle over the sea - it'd be much simpler.


Monday, 2 February 2015

seven elevenless

Before leaving the coast we have one last good camp on the beach with a windless dry night, the moon looming brightly above us.  Now we are heading west up the Taroko Gorge, one of Taiwan's natural highlights.  We have read about the tour buses so remain quite sanguine about sharing the narrow road with a lot of traffic. 
As we ride upwards the cliffs on both sides tower way above us.  The road cuts through the cliffs via a series of tunnels and there are turn-offs for the tourists to stop and get out and have a look at a spring or a bit of the gorge and buy a souvenir before getting back on the bus.  At a certain point, around 35 km, the buses cannot continue - the road is too narrow and twisting.  We stop for lunch in the tourist village which has some free camping, but there's still a lot of day left so we continue the climb up into the mountains.  There are plenty of cars coming down the road and a few going up, along with some brave souls on scooters.  One woman stops and runs after us to ask where we are from and where we are going.  She urges us on.  Maybe she knows more about our route than we do.  The road ges up and up and up and by sundown we are neither here nor there.  The road has been cut out of the mountainside and in some places there is a spare piece of land big enough for one or two cars.  There's nothing for it but to camp in one of these.  As we start cooking we start noticing a lot of truck traffic coming down the road.  It's as if they've all been waiting for us to camp.  Our tent is about two metres from the roadside but there's nowhere else for us to go.  Luckily we have a supply of gin and tonic to sedate ourselves.
the happy chef
Next day we have plenty of kilometres to climb before lunch, which is a quick rice and veg in a scruffy roadside cafe.  It's bliss to take a seat and have a good rest because the road has been relentlessly steep. The food is the worst we've had in Taiwan but neither of us cares - it's just a relief to find somewhere because we're not entirely sure we have enough supplies with us.  Onwards we plod in our granny gears.  At some point in the afternoon we resort to pushing.  The climb should get easier as we get closer to the top but for some reason the gradient has steepened.  We pause at a toilet block beside a tunnel entrance for a cup of tea.  It's a nice wooden affair with platforms looking out over the deep valleys below.  At least we think it is - we've been in cloud all day.  What we have noticed is the change in vegetation as we've climbed and we're now surrounded by lovely pines. While we consider our camping options a nice couple who have stopped in their car come over with an armful of snack food - mostly biscuits. Fabulous, although every biscuit is individually wrapped so by the time we have unwrapped everything it all seems a bit of a let down.  But no, those biscuits go well with a cuppa.
to our dismay the picture of these on the packet was life size
Through the tunnel we start descending, a lot.  This is wrong.  We should be climbing.  Now we understand why it has been so tough - we didn't account for climbing higher and then descending.  As dusk approaches we reach a little village with a tarmacced carpark, a petrol station and a police station.  The petrol attendant won't let us camp on the nice bit of grass next to his building.  The policeman won't let us camp on the piece of land next to the cop shop because the guard dog will bark all night.  He tells us there's a place by a stream at a bend in the road.  We find it and it's just okay.  At least tonight we have a crash barrier to separate our tent from the passing nighttime vehicles.

Sunday morning and the cloud is below us.  We wait for the sun to defrost and dry out our tent.  Who'd have thought we'd get a frozen tent in Taiwan?  After a stretch of uphill we finally reach the road junction that takes us northwards and downhill for a long long time.  The day is lovely and sunny and the air is fresh and cool as we coast through a landscape of pine forest.  By lunchtime we have reached a little tourist village perched on a ridge where we can get lunch, restock and check our messages using the wifi at the visitor centre.  Except we can't get on-line.  "Can I use the wi-fi please?" The information man asks in response "Do you know where you are going?" I wonder what his game is.  "Yes, thanks, but I'd like to get on-line if I can".  It turns out we can't.  Gayle registered to use the government tourist wi-fi service when we arrived at Taichung train station on our first day.  But it has expired after 30 days.  The man rings up the service centre.  We will have to re-register.  Sure, no problem.  At the airport.  At the airport?  We're in the middle of the mountains on bicycles.  How can we get to the airport? If only Gabor was here. "Idiots" I mutter to myself.
the road looks like it is repaired every year after typhoon season
After a good break we continue down the road and find ourselves traversing a ridge to a valley bottom before crossing a bridge and climbing steeply once again.  Oh, it's tough this road, it's tough.  And what's worse, the road is built up with small farms and houses and there's no chance of an early finish.  We have climbed to a pass and descended yet again before finding the road going up once more.  Luckily there's a little track leading up to a shelf of land above the road.  It's the first decent spot we've seen all day, which is quite unusual, but considering the terrain this road is passing through, is not surprising.  We are so happy to go to sleep out of sight from the road for a change.

Our fourth day and we still haven't come across a convenience store.  How inconvenient.  And yet we survive.  How on earth can we?  The road crosses another pass and then a huge descent begins, first on switchbacks and then quickly down to one big cabbage farm.  Fields and fields of cabbages.  Or fields and fields of nitrates waiting for the cabbages to grow.  It smells rather nasty but the cabbages look wonderful - the size of footballs.  Even the river bed is not exempt.  While the waters run dry the riverbed is being cleared with diggers, rocks stacked in rows and lines prepared for planting.  It's industrial.   We opt not to buy the heavily discounted local produce (two for a quid!) but continue pushing on, trying to take advantage of the gradient that for once is finally in our favour. 

After a good long day on the bike we are coasting into Yilan City when the darkening skies bring a downpour.  Typical.  Always at the end of the day.  We shelter under some trees and put on our waterproofs, bemoaning our look.  It could only get worse if one of us stood in some dog shit.  We both step in some dog shit.  When there's a break in the rain we make a run for it and start looking for somewhere to camp.  You know your luck has run out when at sunset all you can see is buildings and paddy fields submerged in water.  It begins torain again and we shelter in a temple for a good half hour or so, until the rain eases again.  We carry on.  It's no use.  It's now dark, raining and we have gone too far into the city to backtrack.  We decide to look for a hotel but haven't a clue where to look.  Gayle stops and asks two young women who are closing up their house plant shop.  They immediately offer to look up a cheap place on the internet and then offer to lead us to it on their scooter.  The hotel is not as cheap as we'd like but their kindness is so welcome and they lead us through torrential rain and busy streets to the hotel and make sure that everything is sorted before leaving.  The hotel is very comfy and the room is big enough to spread our stuff out to dry.  A shower never felt so good.

get it out, hang it up, put it anywhere you can