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.

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