Saturday, 30 May 2015

up the coast

An hour after setting off along the riverbank, we meet three cycle tourists and Emma.  Emma is also a cycle tourist, I suppose, because she's riding in a trailer behind her German Dad.  She notices that Gayle is wearing the same sandals as her German Mum.  While we chat about our routes a Belgian Bloke arrives.  He is going fast and can't stop for long, but long enough to tip us off about a closed road and then complain about the price of camping in Japan.  We all look baffled.  Who pays to camp in Japan?  We follow along the cycle path to Nara, Japan's earliest true capital, which sits south of Kyoto.  In the end we don't get there, even though it's only about 40km.  Instead we stop for a late lunch that segues into a long afternoon siesta out of the sun which then blends seamlessly into a cooked dinner and camp in a tiny little park by a canal.  An old lady dog-walking stops to chat.  It transpires she used to live in Bonn and her daughter will be marrying there in August.  She points to our loaded bicycles and tells us her husband likes cycling. "He has sixteen bicycles."  How many can he ride at once, I don't ask. 

always pick up the walnut whips left by your dog
Nara, laid out in the same design as Xi'an, China's old capital, boasts the largest wooden building in the world.  It is big.  And it's full of schoolchildren.  And a Buddha.
and this isn't the big one

Outside there are groups of Chinese tourists looking baffled.  They are probably on day three of a five-day tour and have no idea where they are or why they are there.  We visit one of the nearby gardens open to the public and then try and find a tourist office with internet because we forgot to check the onward route and we know there are mountains between here and Ise.  The old fellas in the office get out their road maps when the computer is too slow to provide the answers : which way is best for bicycles?  Gayle communicates with mime and smiles.  One guy speaks enough English for them to help us.  It's baking as we head out of the city and the end of the afternoon finds us plodding up a busy road into the hills.  It's tortuous but finally we turn off the main road and race towards a park we have spotted on our map.  It's signposted and promises a tree and a bench.  In fact it has a lot more, including baseball field, football pitch and tennis courts.  And it is closed.  It's not just closed.  There is an electric fence around the whole site.  Signs inform us they are to protect the property from wild boar and deer, but this is rubbish.  It is clearly a conspiracy to prevent rogue cycle-tourists from camping happily in a pleasant riverside location.  Well, we do anyway, but just down river where there's a track we can get onto.
some of the Nara Tourist Information Team sub-branch office (retired division)

Our road to Ise is tougher than we are prepared for.  Plenty of up and plenty of down, which means more up and more down until we are worn out with it.  The sun is blazing still and we seek shade at a michi no eki at a road junction, but then set off again in the afternoon while it's still too hot.  At the end of the day our road suddenly disappears in the trees.  We have been gradually climbing to a pass and we think we have reached it, but the road suddenly turns into a little backwoods single track.  We camp on a dirt track that has been bulldozed into the mountain and suddenly stops.  It's quiet.  It's spooky.  It's perfect.

it seemed that the road building had stopped because of, er, landslides.............

The road to Ise is downhill on the single track road which is shattered and crumbling in places - very neglected - but a wonderful start to the day in the cool of the pine forest.  Ise is almost at the coast so we are hoping for an easy cruise downhill but no such luck.  Our route twists and turns and eventually spits us out on a riverside road that finally brings us to Ise, a small town with an important Shinto shrine. And a bike shop next to the post office.  I need a new bottle cage.  The bike shop guy tells us that 20 years ago he visited Oxford and the Cotswolds.

mountain road

The shrines are disappointing.  As per tradition, the shrines are rebuilt every 20 years or so, and the Grand Shrine is brand spanking new.  At the other site there is no access to the shrine.  But plenty of access to the tourist shops.  Shintoism seems to have evolved from animist beliefs and used to supply the emperor with the necessary spiritual backing to rule.  These shrines are dedicated to the solar deity goddess and to farming.  Maki had commented to us that she thought it was odd that Chinese tourists visited Shinto shrines when they are, by default, dedicated to the Japanese imperial family - chief priests and priestesses must come from the emperor's family.  But who cares about all that these days, when both countries live in such a harmonious neighbourly, erm.

look, but don't come in
There's a ferry that takes us over the sea to a peninsula which means we can avoid Nagoya and it's industrial sprawl.  The Nagoya area is reckoned to be in the top 20 biggest economies of the world in its own right, helped along by being the home of Toyota.  So definitely worth missing on a bicycle.  Instead we find ourselves riding a ridge above the Pacific Ocean in all its wild glory. 

This area is given over to intensive farming and greenhouses.  We finally get down to shore and come across a whole mob of surfers at the beach.  It's a scene.  We want to camp on the beach but I'm weirded out by a beach bum - a man who has holes in the seat of his pants and red rheumy eyes.  So instead we mooch on and finally come to a little park at the mouth of a river.  Here there are picnic tables and toilets and freshly strimmed grass and about ten wind turbines towering above us.  The coast is lined with these turbines as we head north east but there's something not right about them.  Are they just for show?  I think so.  
takes me back to Mongolia
We are now following the Pacific Coast Cycling Route on waymarked paths that stick to the coast and occasionally get us lost when we have to return to the roads in order to cross bridges.  Somewhere we are diverted around a huge nuclear power station. Aha.  The turbines are just for show - a sop to the people after the Fukushima disaster?  Or is Japan starting to look at alternative energy sources?  The coastline here is wild and windy, waves crashing in and battering the surfers who bob around looking for the Big One.  
dining alfresco
There's a surprising amount of small industrial plants tucked in behind the pine forest and earth bank that protects the land from the sea and the winds. We enjoy this stretch just for the relief of not being on a main road and for getting away from the built up coastal areas.  

But escape is not always possible and we end up in a small town - again we camp in a park, another one located on a detailed map we check in a convenience store.  This one is an island surrounded by tidal water channels.  It's overgrown and unkempt and untypical of Japan.  But there are the ever-present toilets so we're happy to be able to wash all the sweat and salt-spray off us. And so we edge closer to Mount Fuji.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

stop, we want to get off

templed out
temˈpelːlɪd/ aʊt/
adjective: templed out
  1. 1.
    very tired (esp. of old buildings).

    "she returned to the guesthouse, templed out from her day in Kyoto "

    synonyms:tired out, worn out, weary, dog-tired, bone-tired, bone-weary, ready to drop, on one's last legs, asleep on one's feet, drained, fatigued, enervated, debilitated, spent
    informaldone in, all in, dead on one's feet, beat, dead beat, shattered, bushed, fagged out, knocked out, wiped out, running on empty, zonked out, worn to a frazzle, frazzled, bushwhacked;
    informalknackered, whacked (out), jiggered;
    informalpooped, tuckered out, whipped;
    vulgar slangbuggered;
    vulgar slangrooted;
    rare propermozzied

    "I must go shopping—I'm templed out"
    antonyms:fresh as a monk, raring to go
  2. 2.
    (of tourism) completely overwhelmed.

    "John couldn't remember where he was, he was so templed out"

    synonyms:used up, at an end, consumed, finished, spent;

these toris are sponsored - the football shirts of Japanese Buddhism

The traffic along the riverside is horrendous.  Endless queues, getting cut up, people passing too close for comfort, narrow lanes, and bollards that make it really awkward with the loaded bikes.  But the cylce path that goes from Osaka to Kyoto is a vast improvement on the roads.  It's a Sunday and the World And His Wife are out on their bikes, in lycra, in jeans and straw pork pie hats, in court shoes, in sandals.  It's a lovely sunny day and the riverside is a ribbon of green.   When we reach the city we head over to one of Kyoto's UNESCO-listed temples.  It's tucked away on a backstreet, behind a railway line, but as soon as we see white faces we know we've found it.  We call this one the 'Many tori Temple' because it has a walk through the forest made up of a tunnel of vermillion gateways.  The temple is dedicated to good harvests - which translates as business success these days - and so the toris are donated by businesses seeking a better return on their investment.  The temple has been voted the best in the whole of Japan on a popular travel website.  But as Maki points out to us later, it is free to enter.  Not all of Kyoto's fabulous collection of temples are free, but as there are over a thousand to choose from, we thought we'd start with a few freebies and see how we get on.  Down the road is the Tofukuji Temple, a temple dedicated to good tofu.  If you want it, they've got it in Kyoto.

a bar for everyone
Guesthouse Soi is easy to find on the south-east side of the city.   Hostels are notoriously busy in Kyoto and when we contacted Maki a while ago, she warned us that bookings were high.  We know Maki because she ran one of the best hostels we've ever visited with her husband Sim in Chengdu.  A while ago they sold up and moved back to Maki's home country to open this place with friends Suzuki and Koori.  Sim isn't here sadly - he's out in Penang setting up a new guesthouse in Georgetown, but when we arrive Maki is on the phone to him, so we say hello.  Maki had kindly agreed to receive two parcels for us - replacement zippers for our tent generously sent by Hilleberg - and a 'Red Cross' parcel from Gabor who is now back in Germany.  We are delighted to receive biscuits we dreamed of in Mongolia, an indestructible silicone spatula, and home-crafted handbrakes for our bikes.  So much thought and care has gone into the parcel - I only wish the same could be said about what I wrote about our ride acrosss Mongolia together and sometimes not together..........

roof detail
No time to dilly-dally though, there are sights to see, places to go.  Temples, temples, shrines, temples.  Kyoto's downtown area is not particularly remarkable but where the city edges out into the surroundings hills and forest you can find plenty of wonderful temple complexes in extensive and leafy grounds.  Some are overrun with coachloads of tourists, while others remain calm and peaceful.  This temple is under a huge scaffold while an army of workers rebuild it.  That shrine is covered in moss and cobwebs, seemingly undisturbed for years.  There are streets of old buildings given over to selling souvenirs, reminiscent of what we have seen in China, and others where the rich live in the luxury of 'old' Japan, with large manicured gardens and wonderful examples of traditional houses, all discreetly tucked out of the sight of prying eyes behind grey stone walls.  Money buys you space in Japan.  

All this sight-seeing is exhausting - we are out of practice.  On the other hand Michael, a young Aussie, doesn't pause to take a breath.  He's travelling around the world in about five months.  He's been in Japan for three and a half days and already travelled the country and he's read a 1001 Things To Do Before You Die and decided to try and do them before he's 25.  His Japanese souvenir is a tad large and tasteless but it's hard to tell him this to his face.  So he might just read it here instead.  And anyway he is obviously thrilled by it. He will return to Tokyo to get the shoulder/torso tattoo completed before he leaves.
950 Japanese schoolchildren try to recreate a famous Beatles album cover

Kyoto is full of pantomime dames
We also have an accommodation headache because Maki hasn't got room for us after two nights.  In fact on the second night we sleep in the booths in the dining area which Maki offers us for free.  This is very kind of her.  We had made a booking for another place on the other side of the city and changed the booking when she said she had a free room.  It's all very messy and as a sign of how far removed from reality we can get, the thought of being charged £12 for changing our booking at the other place quite stresses us.  We cross town to find a traditional house hidden behind modern appartment buildings in a quiet neighbourhood.  The guesthouse is excellent and great value but we decide not to like the owner for charging us that £12 fee.  On the way there we pass the Golden Pavillion.  It's close to 5 o'clock but we take a look anyway.  "You're too late" a man shouts to us as we set about parking our bikes.  Ian and Martin are sat sweating in the shade.  They are staying in a capsule hotel near the station tonight for want of a better place to stay.  Martin is nearly 2 metres tall so he's not looking too sure about it.  Ian is a jovial Englishman ready with a story.  Have we been to Kobe and tried the famous beef there?  No, was it good? we ask.  Weellll.  The Kobe beef was a little too expensive so they headed to McDonalds instead and had burgers.  So now if anyone asks they can say they went to Kobe and had some Kobe beefburgers.  It's a hoot chatting to some cheery Englishmen.  The city is full of tourists from all over the world but we feel that sudden displacement commonly felt when we switch from travelling in parts of the country that sees no foreign tourists to the complete opposite.  And hey, why does no-one say hello to each other?  Why are we being blanked?  All of a sudden the world feels cold and friendless.

Japanese maple

We are happy to return to Maki's guesthouse.   When we stayed at their guesthouse in Chengdu she was usually in the office managing a large team of staff whilst Sim had the fun of mixing with the guests and doing jobs around the hostel.  It was too big.  They employed 45 people and had over 100 rooms.  They wanted something smaller.  But Maki observes that the kind of guest that they have in Kyoto is rather different to Chengdu and rarely do long-term travellers pass through their doors.   Masato has arrived and begun helping out.  He has cycled quite a bit in China, where he met Maki and Sim in Chengdu. He speaks English well and adopts the air of a traditional English gentleman's butler, but with a warm and friendly smile.  He has improved his English by watching television.  Maki takes us and Masato out for a lunch of ramen noodles at a locals' place in the north of the city and then up onto the mountain in the north west where there was once a large and influential temple complex.  It was here that many leading Japanese buddhist monks studied before then heading off and setting up their own splinter group sect.  There are still many important buildings here and the main prayer hall has the most atmosphere we have come across in Japan thus far.  But there looks to be few monks here.  Maki wonders why a young man would become a monk in modern-day Japan.

Desperate for a proper rest, despite getting one with Danny and Christine, we stay a few days longer.  Maki once again grants us special exemption to sleep in the dining area on yet another full night.  This means we can meet Romain whom Gayle found fast asleep in the sunshine in Kagoshima about two months ago.  Romain has met his parents here before he starts a year's stay working in Japan and gets in touch via Facebook.  He is taking time off the bike for a while.  It's something we need to start planning for too.  We have been invited to house sit for old travelling friends Fabien and Coralie who now live in Luang Prabang in Laos and, for the record, are far from old. So we book a flight from Seoul to Chiang Mai for early August.  After a break in Luang Prabang we need to find work to save some money for the onward journey.   It's a good opportunity to take a break from travelling and do something different.

with Suzuki and Maki outside Guesthouse Soi

Sunday, 17 May 2015

between Kyoto and the deep blue sea

The sky is blue when we awake to the sound of birds chirping and a vacuum cleaner.  Vacuum cleaner?  Yep, that sure sounds like a vacuum cleaner.  It gets nearer and nearer before finally we hear an old lady muttering and trying to blow leaves away.  Is she really doing that?  Or is she really trying to tell us to clear off?  Japanese people are very polite and do not like confrontation so maybe this is a not so subtle hint to us.  When she retreats we get moving.  It's all a game.

It's hard to believe, but in the English-speaking Japanese Times we read that yesterday we cycled through Typhoon No.6  It apparently worked it's way up the country from Okinawa.  Thought the rain was a bit heavy.  Today is in stark contrast as we climb over a pass in a blaze of sunshine and descend into one almighty urban sprawl.  We are riding into the region that includes Osaka and Kyoto and in between the unheard of city of Takatsuki.  It takes a bit of pavement riding and then we give the road another go as we are now descending to what seems like sea level.  We are so happy the sun is out again we don't care about the surroundings.

Finally we get close to our destination - we are being hosted by Danny and Christine, two English teachers - and we stop to cook our tea beside the river.  There are plenty of people out for the late afternoon run/stroll/powerwalk/cycle.  It seems rare that anyone is actually socialising with anyone else - no-one is walking with a friend or jogging together - which strikes us as a bit sad.  Do people feel lonely here?  Some look slightly amused to see us cooking our dinner.  Some smile and nod as they pass by.  One bloke flies by on his bike and then turns around to chat to us.  Masa has cycled across Australia.  He seems like he is struggling to remember his English at first, but it might just be that he has so many questions to ask.  We talk and then he sets off again.  A bit later he comes back with bananas and a camera to take photos.  Such encounters are disarming. 

another tea in the park - down by the riverside

We let ourselves in to the flat.  The key was in the letterbox.  The light switches don't seem to work but there's an empty room where we dump our bags.  Danny had explained that they are both teaching and won't be back until after 9pm so to make ourselves at home.  I go for a shower and Gayle sets off the panic alarm.  The fire bell sounds on the landing and all the neighbours appear on the stairs to find out whose being murdered.  Meanwhile I'm hopping about trying to get my clothes back on and Gayle is burying her face in her hands.  "I thought it was the light switch" she cries.  She's too ashamed to open the front door so I have to go out and speak to the alarmed neighbours.  Meanwhile the bell is deafening.   Finally I work out how to switch it off - rip off the switch cover and pull the switch out. Silence.  Gayle apologises to the neighbours.  Stupid foreigners, they're probably thinking.  With any luck they'll think we are Danny and Christine.  We all look the same, right? 

"Hi, I'm Danny."  Danny looks Irish, speaks Yorkshire and has a Scandinavian surname.  We feel instantly connected to him because he offers us tea.  With milk.  A friend for life.  Christine is a a lovely American who clearly enjoys living in Japan.  She's been here about 8 years.  Both of them are teaching young kids and have just come back to work here after time off in the States and the UK.  They've only been in the appartment for three weeks.  Last year Danny cycled the length of the country from south to north with the intention of writing about the journey and Japan.  He's working through a second draft of the book and asks if we could read it.  It's very funny and insightful.  We recognise some of the quirky and puzzling aspects of Japanese life.  

Christine and Danny have mastered the Japanese kneel

We have felt slightly frazzled riding through Honshu and being in Christine and Danny's home is like an oasis of calm.  The typhoon day also made us wonder if we can bear to stay longer in Japan - the rainy season begins in June.  Danny is optimistic - he thinks it won't be so bad.  In fact, he wonders if the Japanese don't overegg the pudding sometimes when they talk with such certainty about the weather and the seasons.  It's almost as if they believe their world is one of fixed certainties, an unchanging world.  It's hard to explain but we know what he means.  One Japanese truism is that Japan has four seasons.  It is said as if this is a unique quality of Japan. He tells us that once he was asked in a classroom if England also has four seasons.  And anyway, Danny only had two days of rain last year on his ride.  So this probably means we face a month of storms and heavy flooding..........

We abuse our hosts' hospitality, chain ourselves to the railings and refuse to leave.  Thankfully they are such a chilled out couple and don't mind if we cook for them - always an experimental activity when you can't quite find what you want in the supermarket.  On one night they treat us to pizza.  It's a decadent pleasure.  But the real pleasure is having people who live here who have an understanding about the country to talk to.  I hope Christine and Danny don't think we are too hard on Japan.  We are critical about so much - and maybe this is because we haven't been able to bounce our opinions off anyone in the last three months.  But there's so much we like here too - and we understand why they are happy to live and work here.  

One of the desciptions Danny uses to describe Japan is that it is like a huge ship sailing in one direction and incapable of changing tack.  It might end badly unless the country can turn in another direction.  If you think the statistics for government debt in the UK are bad you should see those for Japan.  They have a much higher debt in proportion to GDP. But the economy is only one part of Japan's problems.  The ageing and shrinking population is another.  What is incredible here is the sense of conformity and the priority  of group harmony over personal wishes. 

riverside oasis in a connurbation of 18 million

Often in the cities we see children cycling home from school in the evening.  Like Taiwan there is a lot of pressure on children to do well in school and many attend cram schools.  Christine explains how the teaching environment she has experienced here emphasises learning through play - an antidote to the standard rote-learning methods more commonly used.  She describes with sympathy how most children say, when asked, that their favourite activity is sleeping.  When we stayed with Kiyoka we asked her about this and she felt that too much pressure was put on children.  She did not raise her kids this way.  But then Kiyoka is clearly not a typical parent.

After four nights with Danny and Christine we set off, reinvigorated, for Kyoto.  It's a Sunday morning and Danny is off to play cricket.  Cricket in Japan.  Who'd have thought it?  But then I think the Japanese are interested in so many things from the West, America especially, why not cricket.  Danny's team is mainly English and Indian ex-pats and now has a fanatical Pakistani player too.  I don't mean a jihadist - just the kind of guy who wants to bat, bowl, keep wicket and umpire, ideally all at the same time.  I can't play cricket for toffee, but I secretly wish I was joining Danny for a game in the park.  It's rare that I miss much from home, but spending time with these great people has got us thinking about England.  Now then, which way is Kyoto?

can you see it, luv? It's round here somewhere

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

coasting towards Kyoto

We're back on Honshu, the main island, but our plan is to avoid this more built up region and try and cross back to Shikoku, mooch east along the north coast before crossing back at the eastern end to Honshu.  Our first day or two along the Honshu coast is quite pleasant.  It's mostly small towns and villages that have sprawled out over the fields.  The roads are quiet enough and the going good because there are no hills.  It seems the cities are built more inland and not exactly on the coast.  Down at the waterfront we pass some industrial plants, some small shipyards, golf courses and out of town shopping zones.  It's not beautiful and we are getting used to riding the footpaths when the road gets too narrow, but we are looking forward to crossing back to Shikoku.  

we met some Indonesian welders who told us it takes a month to build a ship

The plan takes a twist the day we are setting off for the long bridges crossing back to Shikoku.  We have camped down by a river, next to a golf course and a baseball ground.  It's quiet at night but in the morning we see a couple of joggers and dog-walkers.  An old man with a big straw hat comes along and says hello.  He asks where we're going but when we say Shikoku he tells us that we can't take the bikes over the bridges. "Too dangerous."  We have now realised that you're as likely to hear a Japanese say "It's safe" as much as you're likely to hear an American say "I don't know".  We think that possibly from living in the safest country in the world the Japanese have recalibrated their safety index to such a sensitive level, that even going to the toilet requires a health and safety warning.  Seriously.  In one shopping centre we have seen a specific warning to wearers of Crocs about using the escalator.  (Ironically there was a Croc shop in the mall.)  Anyway, we already have a cunning plan B in mind - keep plugging away along the Honshu coastline to Kyoto.  We check the map.  Er, the coast follows a big peninsula southwards. Okay, plan C - let's just head in as straight a line as possible to Kyoto.  We reconsult the map.  It's covered in green blotches. It's the Golf Course Route.

Following a tried and tested formula, we follow a river eastwards that cuts through the hills, thus avoiding the big detour around the peninsula.  At the end of the day we find ourselves on tiny roads with 15% gradients because we can't use the main road which is a toll road with no shoulder.  Finally we find a michi no eki in the middle of nowhere which is deserted.  This service station has a waterpark, garden and go-kart track but it's all closed up on a Friday night.  We pitch round the back away from the carpark and fall asleep to the sound of alarming grunts coming from the bushes. (A few days later we realise the grunts are actually croaks from huge toads or bullfrogs - they sound like someone practising on a tuba.) The next day we are back on the coast and following it past small industrial plants and grey-looking towns.  It's a rainy morning and the small towns lack trees - there's no room for foliage.  Happily, by the end of the day it's sunny and we have motored almost to Himeji city.  We camp in a small unused park surrounded by houses.  We can tell it's unused - there are weeds everywhere, cobwebs on the benches and in the toilets, and the gravel hasn't been raked.  This really is the lowest of Japan's high standards for public spaces.

Sunday morning softball - a passerby depresses us by telling us the UK election result

At seven am on a sunny Sunday morning we are awoken by babbling voices.  Gayle looks out out of the tent.  "There's a crowd forming at the far end!" she hisses. "Get up.  Get up."  I look out.  A line of men carrying pitchforks and hoes and shovels is marching up the road.  It's an angry mob coming to run us off their patch.  Well, no, it's just a group of elderly residents who have gathered together for their annual "Clean Up".  One old man gestures to us and suggests something in Japanese.   Basically, we're in the way.  The group of pensioners then set about Cleaning Up.  This involves all the women sitting down in the weeds and using a small hook to cut them out.  The men split into a ditch-clearing team and rakers.  Raking looks a doddle and it seems that the most important factor is turning up, rather than doing anything useful.  We notice that the men and women seem to separate and stick together.  We wonder how easily the two sexes socialise in Japan.  When we see schoolkids they are never mixed up - even from the same school, boys with the boys, girls with the girls.

If you're into castles then Japan has plenty.  Most of them were vacated during the modernisation period in the late 1800s and turned into public parks.  The buildings haven't all survived.  Restoration sometimes means reconstruction.  Himeji castle is rated as one of the best surviving originals.  It has just reopened after a six-year renovation, so maybe it's no surprise that when we reach the train station there's a busy flow of tourists coming and going between the perfectly located station, along a boulevard, to the castle at the northern end.  Bright white, from the station the castle looks like a wedding cake.  We sit outside the tourist office on the pavement to access the free wi-fi.  It's tedious but we need to sort out accomodation in Kyoto.  Later we go up to the castle and crowd watch.  
almost as good as the crowd watching

We look at a couple of guesthouses but the rooms are windowless closets so it's really without much consideration that we head to the central park in the evening to cook our tea and pitch the tent.  We give up our first choice pitch when we notice a few cars cruising around and a couple of police cars.  It's rare to see the police out and about, so seeing them glide past twice in half an hour sends us looking on the other side of the park.  We're not too concerned about the police finding us camping, but I am still not carrying my passport.  We're not sure of the crime rate in Japan - ex-pats tell us how they never lock their houses - but one thing we do know is that if you get arrested in Japan then you are Going Down.  Get this Detective Maclintock: Japan has a 99% conviction rate.  Most suspects arrested make a confession.  This might be because the police can incarcerate you for 23 days without access to legal representation.  Apparently most confessions are made to avoid more shame being brought on the family. There is also the widely-accepted belief in Japanese society that the judiciary and police never make mistakes.  As a cycle tourist without a passport I have stopped shooting red lights or waving the V sign in road rage just in case.

We're Watching You - ostensibly a warning to fly-tippers but maybe to others too...

At the end of one day that has been spent flitting from one town to the next we head towards a park marked on our map.  If it's on the map we know it'll be big, but nothing quite prepares us for the Hyogo Disaster Management Centre Park.  It's spread over a large hill and at it's apex there is a huge covered structure that looks like something out of James Bond.  A sign tells us it's the indoor tennis arena - but it looks like a nuclear weapons command base.  The park has golf, football and baseball grounds plus a running track.  It seems endless.  The car park is massive and empty bar the few cars of locals out for an evening run or walk.  We camp behind an empty building in a picnic area where there are signs warning us about snakes and a particular type of spider with distinctive markings.  I am thus unalarmed when I see such a spider on the tent only seconds after pitching.  It is quickly flattened.  We wash in a brand new toilet block.  The place strikes us as quite mysterious as we are not that close to Kobe, the nearest city, so who are the facilties for?  Only later do we read about how the Red Cross in 26 other countries raised funds for victims of the Kobe earthquake back in the 1990's.  The funds were controversially used to build this sports park/relief centre, although I doubt that many Japanese know much about this.  The media here seems rather tepid - news agencies get put under pressure from the government and rightwing organisations - so you are more likely to hear about another child being born to the British royal family than any big corruption scandal or cover-up.  The park has never been used in an emergency but it's there, just in case.

Japan's infrastructure is failing to keep pace with its ageing population
The next day we are expecting rain, so are quite happy to be able to pack up with everything dry.  But from 9 o'clock onwards it all gets a bit messy.  We find shelter mid-morning at a michi no eki that is really just a restaurant, shop and toilets.  Still, there's a settee under cover so we bagsy it.  After lunch we head off just as the rain eases.  The rain then gets heavier, of course.  We push on.  Mid-afternoon, soaking wet, we stop in a convenience store that has seats.  This is not so common in Japan - most punters sit in their vehicles in the car park drinking or eating their purchases.  We dry off a little but the rain continues.  Checking the map for possible camp spots we note a park in a hot spring area with lots of hotels.  But getting there turns into a marathon struggle up steep hills in horrendous rain.  To make matters worse, there's a wind with it.  I'm sick of it.  Gayle's sick of it.  

like meeting an old friend

Finally we reach Arima - a nook in a mountainside jammed tight with some quite ugly hotels.  This is spa territory - lots of five star establishments and no atmosphere.  To get to the park we have to push up a ridiculously steep road, rain still pouring.  But hallelujah, there's a toilet block, there's an arbor and there's space for our tent under the roof.  We cook our tea and toast our good fortune with a bottle of vino.  The only trouble is that while we eat the floor of our shelter starts to fill up with water as the wind blows the rain in.  It seems our good fortune has run out.  I had noticed steps up to a shrine when we arrived, so I suggest to Gayle that tonight we bed down inside the shrine.  She immediately agrees and we go and check out the place.  But there is no shrine.  There's a locked-up building and something covered in tarp - but Gayle sees that there is actually a very dry space under a concrete roof next to the tarp.  We can't believe our luck.  We fetch our bikes and pitch the tent bone dry.  What a day.

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