Wednesday, 24 June 2015


Rob told us there are bears all over Hokkaido
not that kind of bear
Having borne the rain, we are eager to get cycling again and soon find ourselves on the banks of the Ishikari River, one of the longest in Japan.  It snakes out of the mountains in the east and turns around the northern slopes of the central mountains before flowing through the city of Sapporo and draining into the Sea of Japan.  And it has a bike path.  Well, some of it does.  It comes and goes, leading us into the woods, or onto an overgrown embankment.  We happily ride along in the sunshine enjoying the warmth and the wild flowers.  

Our road is heading into the Sounkyo Gorge.  The road is bigger than we like, but there's a nice wide hard shoulder so at least we have some space to look around and enjoy the scenery.  There's nothing worse than 'white-line' cycling on the edge of a main road, listening out for overtaking traffic with vehicles coming in the opposite direction.  

Following the river upstream we are climbing slowly slowly and then almost imperceptibly, it climbs more steeply.  We ride through the ugly spa resort of Sounkyo and up to an enormous reservoir with great mountain views above the forest.  We don't find anywhere by the lake to camp and settle for a track off the main road.  But what about bears?  Rob had told us that there are bears all over Hokkaido, but that we are unlikely to come across any if we stick to the main roads.  Gayle scoffs, but at least agrees that we cook in a clearing away from the track where we'll camp.  As it is, when night falls previously unnoticed street lamps light up.  And trucks continue to thunder past.  There'll be no bears wandering around here.
bears everywhere

In the morning we climb up to a high pass of 1000 metres.  It's a tedious slog up some very long straight roads. 
We are rewarded with great views.  A big descent takes us into a long valley.  We are looking for a side track that will lead us through the woods and over a ridge and down to Lake Oketo.  The forest track looks like the right one and there are even some road signs further along it, although it looks little used.  There's a closed up house and a couple of gravel pits, but otherwise it's dense dark forest.  We follow the track along a river and then start to climb.  Soon we are pushing.  We climb and climb.  Conscious that we might be straying into bear territory I get out our little fishing-line bells and start speaking in a loud voice.  Gayle is unimpressed. She doesn't really think there are any bears in Hokkaido, but she would love to see one.  Quite frankly, I wouldn't.   We keep pushing up and up, around hairpin bends.  There's a tyre tread on the track, so perhaps there are woodcutters up here.  The problem is, we don't seem to be getting near to the ridge we need to cross.  It's hard to tell in the forest but it feels like we should have reached the pass by now.  And then we come to a pile of shit on the track.  It's black and big, and although it's not exactly steaming, it looks kind of fresh.  Now, I'm no David Attenborough, but this is looking serious. "Gayle, tell me that's not what I think it is".  "Maybe it's another cycle-tourist who's just seen the climb ahead".  Sure enough the track is getting steeper again.  Optimistically we continue up.  And then we come to another pile of shit.  Gayle takes a photo of it. 

The track flattens out and curves along a ridge.  And then it begins to descend.  In the wrong direction.  I've checked with the compass.  We are almost heading north and the lake should be south of here.  But it's a relief to be able to get on the bikes and head downhill.  Gayle hurtles away.  I'm following slowly behind and just noticing the two logger's huts by the track when I see Gayle has stopped in her tracks.  She says something I don't catch. What? "A bear!" "A bear?" "A bear!"  She's stock still. I don't know what to do.  There's nowhere to run except downhill ahead.  Fortunately the bear immediately dashed into the forest as soon as it saw Gayle.  We quickly confer and decide to retrace our footsteps. The track feels suddenly very claustrophobic.  Gayle looks excited and happy.  She wants to tell me about the bear.  I don't want to know anything until we are, literally, out of the woods.  At least we can ride back down the track - we retreat 6 kilometres and get back to the road.

How big was it? About this high, Gayle indicates the height of her bike.  Oh, so just a little black bear.  No, this was on all fours.  It was a big brown bear.  A grizzly. It was about twenty, thirty metres away. With it's back to her.  It turned when it heard her coming and then leapt into the trees.  Gayle continues to look excited and happy.  She knows she's very lucky.  I am so happy to be cycling on tarmac again.

blink and you'll miss it

Monday, 22 June 2015


We are inspired to spice up our touring a little, inspired by Alastair Humphrey's Micro-adventures. Rob has the book and we are prompted to check some of his short videos again. So, after a couple of days getting ourselves sorted, and being well-fed (Rob asks if we like sausage and mash.  Does the bear shit in the woods?), we are on our way.

skinny-dipping  As it's sunny and fine weather our first micro-adventure is to go swimming in the first river we come to.  Fifty metres on we turn past the station and come to the river running through the town. Ah. Hum.  Best not be stripping off here, eh?  We carry on and the road takes us gradually towards the big hills.  We dawdle a bit and finally come to rest at a small town with a michi o neki which amounts to a co-op supermarket and a toilet block.  There's a young Japanese lad sitting on a bench next to his loaded bike.  Masamichi is only 19 and is cycling around Japan.  Once in a very while we meet young men like him, with a sign on the back of their bike and a spark in the eye.  Masamichi plans to camp on the tarmac behind the toilet block, which has a septic tank.  We opt to take the overgrown wasteland nearby, with some fresher air.  Masamichi refuses to join us - he doesn't like insects.  How does he cope, we wonder.  While we chat a farmer comes over offering up two of his melons.  "Presento" he says bowing.  We bow back.  How kind.  He talks with Masamichi for a while before saying goodbye.  We bow again.  The melons are heavy.  "He says we must wait two days before they are ready to eat.  They're good melons", Masamichi adds.  They must be.  In the co-op they're selling them for about £18 a pair. Eighteen quid!  

russian roulette  We're heading the same way as Masamichi and ride together into the forrested hills.  The road winds up to a reservoir and over a pass.  The sun beats down.  Coming out of a tunnel we are greeted by some men in a van who give us bottles of iced tea.  We had seen them earlier in a village and said hello in passing.  We sit in the sun to eat lunch - there's no shade to be found.  At a carpark we take water from the toilets, but then see the sign that says it's not for drinking.  Untreated.  The advice is not to drink it as foxes are rife and pollute the watercourses.  There's a bacteria that can develop into a fatal tapeworm.  But it's baking hot and we have no alternative.  So we take a gamble.  Masamichi looks doubtful.  We have another slow climb in the sun to another pass.  Finally, at the end of the light is a tunnel.  It's cool and dank and narrow, but the traffic is not too heavy.  Happily we roll downhill and feeling good, decide to continue on to Furano.  Masamichi is in a hurry to reach the town to recharge his phone so we say goodbye.  Just before the town we spot a nice spot by the river.  It's been a long sweaty day so the camp spot is perfect.

pancakes  Sunday is typically the busiest with daytrippers and so we look for smaller roads to avoid the main highway.  
We are heading up a wide open valley with wonderful views of the central mountains.  Our eyes are constantly drawn to them.  The skies are gloriously clear and the day feels good.  For lunch we make pancakes in a park.  It's hardly the stuff of Alastair Humphreys, but as Rob had pointed out, microadventures is what a lot of people have been doing at weekends for donkeys years.  The only adventurous thing about making pancakes is tossing them. 

The small farming roads take us through some rolling countryside and it's easy to forget we're in Japan.  This looks like round our way at home - winding river, trees, fields.  There are more wildflowers here and they are brilliantly colourful. 

In the afternoon we meet Masamichi in a small town.  He has hooked up with another young cycle tourer and they're staying at a Rider House.  These are cheap simple lodgings for motorcyclists and cyclists and regrettably can only be found on Hokkaido.  We choose to continue as the sun is still out.  But we are warned that tomorrow it will rain.  Masamichi shows us the forecast on his smart phone - a big yellow sun graphic.  "Oh!"  The weather changes quickly here.  By now the sun has lowered and is casting a warm glow across the farmland.  Rice paddies fill the valleys, while corn and wheat are growing on the rolling hillsides where the forest has been cleared.  We have just started to look for a camping spot beside a river when a car zips past and then does a Sweeny-style turn to come back.  Drunken locals?  It's not typical for Japan.  Oh, hang on, it's gaijin, foreigners and she's smiling.  "It's Clare and Andy" Gayle realises.  We have contacted them via Warm Showers to see about stopping with them on our way back.  They had mentioned that they would be in the vicinity at the weekend but we had forgotten we might bump into them, especially on a quiet back road.  It turns out they've been taking part in a "Sea to Summit" race and are flushed with success.  Having kayaked, biked and then hiked up the highest mountain on the island, Clare came first in the Women's and Andy second in the Men's.  They must be Iron Men, Iron People.  It's a long way to the sea from these mountains.  After a bit of catching up we roll off to camp next to the local school before it gets too dark to ride.  Sea to summit.  Now there's a micro-adventure.

stealth-camping  There's no such thing as a wild camp in Japan.  Here you can camp in the park and no-one seems to mind.  It probably helps if you don't pitch your tent at 10 in the morning and stay for a week, but if you wait until evening when most good folk are tucked up in bed it's fine.  And most folk seem to go to bed early in the countryside.  The reason for this is that they get up at sunrise, which is about 4am in these parts.  Then they are out walking the dog or strimming the grass or blowing the leaves away.  After a slow start on a cloudy day we find ourselves cycling in drizzle.  It's the kind of drizzle that seems like nothing when you are just stood in it, but soaks you to the skin when you start cycling.  By 4 o'clock we're looking out for a park.  We find one with a park golf course in trees.  But a woman spies us from the emergency shelter nearby.  Each community in Japan has a designated shelter for use in times of emergency - the buildings are often specially built halls or maybe a local school - something that has been built to withstand serious earthquake.   It turns out that we are on the very edge of an enormous sports park even though there seems to be no town nearby.  It's not the first time we come across something like this.  There are baseball fields, a football pitch, tennis courts and golf course, picnic tables and toilets.  That'll do nicely.  We cook under an arbor which becomes our home for the next 36 hours.  The rain hardly stops and the clouds obscure any views.  It's just about warm enough - the cool refreshing temperatures that we experienced when we arrived offf the ferry are now verging on the cold and miserable.  So we dance to keep warm.  Actually, we end up having a sudoku marathon.  There are convenient gaps in the rain to allow us to pitch our tent and scramble inside on both evenings.  On the second night Gayle wakes me up.  Some yoofs have turned up in a car at 1am and are horsing about.  Have they seen our tent?  Should we be afraid?  We've never seen any sign of delinquency or vandalism in Japan, so we turn over and try to get back to sleep. Eventually they drive off. Life might be bit dull for youngsters growing up here.  Everyone conforms, to do otherwise is very irregular and unusual.  Maybe driving our to the park on a rainy Monday night and messing about is a microadventure for someone....
drying out

Thursday, 18 June 2015

last but not least

"Hokkaido isn't Japan" Rob tells us.  We had already noticed that life here looked a bit rougher around the edges.  You sometimes get the impression that everything in Japan feels orderly and tidy and manicured.  Cycling from the port up to Chitose along the main highway we notice the overgrown verges, the cracked road surface, the crumbling kerbstones.  The buildings look weathered and so might they.  Winter here is long and hard.  The bus shelters have sliding doors.  The public toilets are the first we've seen with doors, and in the men's side at least, ashtrays.  Smoking is not allowed in public places in Japan.  But Hokkaido is something else. Something wilder.  At least we hope..... This is the last of the main islands for us to visit.

Haidee and Rob both have university jobs and have lived in Japan for several years.  In their spare time they head out and explore the back roads of the island.  We are welcomed into their appartment with a wonderful meal and good conversation, the kind that we struggle to find here in Japan because we are rarely meeting other travellers or any locals with good english.  Full of insights and information, they are able to answer all our questions about the island and recommend places to go.  When we met Freddy in Kyushu he reminisced happily about cycling around Hokkaido "because it's so flat!".  Flat is a relative term.  Compared to the geography of the other main islands of Japan, Hokkaido offers up much wider valleys and vistas, but it ain't Belgium.  Right in the centre are a clutch of dramatic-looking mountains and we aim to ride around them.

We knew of Rob before we contacted him because back in October we were asked to contribute to a new edition of Trailfinders' Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook.  We asked the editors and writers, Neil and Harriet Pike about contributors for China and Japan, because that's where we were heading.  Rob wrote the information for Japan.  The book is aimed at inspiring cycle tourers and to suggest good places for adventure cycle touring.  We're not 100% sure how to define adventure cycle touring, so we are particularly interested to find Japan included, as it seems the easiest place in the world to tour.  In fact, we would recommend it to anyone considering going further afield than their home country.  Rob puts the case for Japan well - a different culture, language and environment.  Maybe coming from the UK we would find more contrasts, but after cycling through Central and East Asia, Japan still has a 'westernised' feel to it.  There is so much here though that is not like anywhere else and the big one is the sense of safety.  Ironically, the Japanese are also, as Haidee and Rob put it, "risk averse".  Perhaps one comes with the other.  Back in a temple in Kyoto, Gayle had spotted a sign that read: 'Listen, Think, Accept, Practice, Believe'  and this kind of doctrine may partly explain the general sense of conformity in Japan which sometimes baffles us.  But this conformity is what shapes society here.  As a visitor, Japan seems like a pretty good place to live.

Rob and Haidee

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

sailing away

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

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

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

two jolly non-millionaires

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

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Tokyo and bust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 7 June 2015


early morning view
We wake up to the sound of walkers and fishermen.  The early sunrise brings them out around 5am.  Somewhere nearby the sea laps the shore.  Birds are singing.  We are camped on a peninsula covered in old pine forest.  There is a shrine nearby and the pine forest itself is referred to in Haiku poems collated in the 8th century.  There's a reason.  Coming from the south, your first view of Mount Fuji is from this peninsula.  When we arrived yesterday evening it was hazy and we couldn't see it.  In fact we thought we needed to turn the corner to get a view, but this morning just after sunrise the air is clear and just over the water is one huge volcano.  I guess being close to the sea makes the mountain seem more impressive, but it is also the largest mountain in the country, so it's no surprise the volcano was revered in olden days.  

feeling happy because..
no, not the time

the kilometres so far

We cycle up the coast, eyes glued to the mountain, before turning inland and uphill on the outskirts of Fuji city.  It's industrial and ugly and the road is choked with lorries.  Warehouses and factories are mixed up with residential areas in a way you rarely see elsewhere.  The houses are dwarfed by their neighbours and the smells and fumes that drift by are noxious.  So we are happy to keep climbing in the stifling heat if only to put some distance between us and the blight.  We are joined along the way by a young man on a bike who starts rides up alongside and starts talking to us.  Unfortunately his English isn't good enough for a conversation, but he does treat us to platitudes about Mount Fuji and the surrounding environment.  It turns out that he hasn't spoken to anyone for days because he doesn't shut up.  But he means well and he clearly feels that he should take responsibility for ensuring our safe passage through these dangerous parts.  Or he just doesn't want to go back to his hotel.  We are climbing slowly now, away from the city and into greener areas, with some forest.  It's a great relief.  Apart from that chattering sound.  The road is so steep and our new friend is getting more irritating because he has no load and clearly has no idea what it's like to cycle up these roads on a loaded bike.  And the traffic is still a bit lively.  We have explained that we will camp, but not in a campsite, and our friend has a tourist map of the area so we check it out for possibilities.  There's a waterfall here and a lake there.  Maybe they'll be something.  Our young friend still shows no sign of leaving us alone and his banter is producing a little interference in our decision-making.  We're not used to this.  Eventually we stop at a fork in the road and say we will go off to find a camping place.  "I know a place, about 200 metres further up this road. I will look.  It is an adventure!"  When he turns the corner we shamelessly set off up the other road.
pacific coast bike path
The golf course is all fenced off and we ride past looking enviously at the tidy grass links.  The road takes us into thick forest but happily we find a track with a chain across the entrance.  We can lift it up and pass under.  The overgrown track leads through to an abandoned campground by the river.  We choose to camp on moss just off the track.  In the morning it's raining and we settle in for the day.  The place is so quiet and isolated and no-one will find us here and we're glad of an excuse to take the day off.  By 2 the rain has stopped but the cloud is low.  I cycle back to a convenience store to get water and some lunch and we spend the day reading.  At dusk there are owls crying out in the pine trees above us piercing the silence.  The next morning is a perfect sunny day and the air is fresh and cool.  It's only after we have set off again that we mention to each other the sound of something passing by the tent.  We each heard something on separate nights, but didn't want to mention it.  And Gayle spotted a turd "full of seeds" on the path.  "A big one?" "I thought it might have been yours at first", she says. Charming.  I always dig a hole.  "So, not a deer?" Hmmm.  What did we hear?

does the bear.........?
Danny had recommended riding around the lakes area north of Fuji and today we understand why.  After the ugliness of the southern flanks yesterday we are surprised to find ourselves in deep forest with hidden away houses and holiday homes.  We could be in Patagonia.  The road rises up and onto a grassy plateau full of cow farms.  The cows we've seen in Japan are always kept in sheds and the same is true here, although we see eight lucky ones gambolling and jogging around in an enclosure for the benefit of some schoolkids on a field trip.  There are five lakes on the north side of Fuji, and we ride from one to the next.  The views of the volcano are wonderful and the skies are vivid blue.  After our wet tent day life is good on the bike.  

The fourth lake brings us to a small tourist town with a hostel.    We have already checked out some perfect wild-camping spots but we also need to get internet so we ask at the hostel about a bed for the night.  They have, so we unload.  The hostel is spacious and the dorm room is only 6 beds.  Irene starts asking about our trip as soon as we meet her.  She's from Taipei and I think she's pleased that we've been to Taiwan and had such a good time there.  But the idea of cycling across Europe and Asia for such a long time.  How?  She is full of questions and laughter.  Irene's our age but she comments on how her energy levels have dipped since she first started travelling.  If only she knew how slow we can be.

Irene needs to practice her 'peace' sign
One night in the hostel becomes three.  Fuji disappears in a rain cloud and we are very happy to have an excuse not to go anywhere.  It makes a nice change to meet other travellers and have a proper conversation as opposed to the usual grunts and groans we exchange with each other.  Cas and Zoe are travelling for a while around the world and Cas laments how the backpacking has changed with the internet.  Now you can't just turn up in a little place expecting to find a room in a good hostel - you have to book it online in advance.  It's something that we have come across in Japan, although actually we did just turn up at the door here and find a room....... Liam arrives with a long list of things to do and see while he's in Japan and he asks Masa, one of the staff, his advice.  Temples and shrines. Ninjas. Cherry blossom. Climbing Fuji? He sets off in the afternoon with the intention of being at the summit for sunrise.  But next morning he's asleep in our dorm.  What happened?  He tells Gayle that in the darkness, on the trail through the woods, he saw what he thought was a dog cross the path ahead of him.  And then he heard a growl and realised it was a bear.  He ran all the way back down.  Abi is an actress from Hong Kong whose group went to the Edinburgh Fringe last year.  She asks "Do you have an objective when you travel?" It stumps me for a bit and she explains that they are taught that they should always have a goal for everything they do. Do we have an objective??

eat more pancakes?
The day we leave Mount Fuji the volcano is still in cloud.  Now we realise how lucky we've been to see it on a clear day.  We cycle around the fifth and largest lake which has been given over to water sports, pedalos and 'cruise' boats.  A biker gang passes us slowly, a group of nationalists riding motorbikes with no baffle in their exhausts, the old imperial flag stuck on the seat, a Hello Kitty girl wedged on the pillion behind.  Their aim is to make as much noise as possible.  We saw a gang like this in Okinawa.  It's not threatening or dangerous just annoying.  Down by the lake shore there are plenty of families out on bikes.  The roads are full of lycra-clad road cyclists tearing up the long valley from Tokyo or tearing back down to it.  We are happy to finally get some downhill free-wheeling and shout out hellos to all the cyclists who pass by.  But then one guy who has overtaken us turns to reply and in the act his front wheel goes under him and he's left skidding across the road.  Miraculously there is no car traffic at this moment - an unbelievable blessing.  The poor guy picks everything up and limps to the side of the road where we try to help patch him up - elbow and knee now skinless, arse hanging out of shredded shorts.  Once he's stopped shaking we let him carry on and we refrain from calling out anymore to the fanatics.  It's a hot sweaty Sunday and we stop at a convenience store to fill up a water bottle.  I'd fill up at the toilet sink but the bottle is too long to fit under the tap, so I ask at the counter.  But, for only the second time on this whole journey and the second time in Japan, the superviser says no.  He puts his arms out in a cross and says "No! No free water!" and then points to the fridges full of cold drinks. I get mad and shout at him and insult him.  Shotgun diplomacy. Both barrels.  He looks very unhappy and would probably thump me if we weren't on camera.  But I want to thump him too.  He takes me outside and shows me the tap for the hosepipe around the side.  It's only later, when we are drinking our tea that Gayle points out the banner blowing in the wind in the carpark. 

maybe the milk was on tap...