2017 April. Japan

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 Time to get out and about again. I’ve been home since the start of the year and really enjoyed our late burst of summer but there are places to see, roads to ride. The next few weeks will hopefully see me circumnavigate the island of Shikoku not far from Osaka, that would be Japan right ? Got your attention ?
The area I cycled in Japan. 1062 kms around the island of Shikoku….
March should mean the start of Spring in Japan and cherry blossom but a quick check of the weather had me wondering if I’d made a big mistake. The next two weeks are going to be cold, tops of 12-14c, brr. I’ll just have to ride harder and faster or catch a train, that’s it I’ll catch a train.
I LOVE that the Japanese still hold many traditions and customs as non negotiable.
I hadn’t even got to my hotel in Osaka before I was bewitched by a geisha riding the subway, the whole foreignness, the elaborate dress, the poise, the painted face, it’s equally parts erotic and intriguing. That’s the thing about Japan, it’s so foreign, still… Whilst all the world has gone all Western they have clung tenaciously to parts of their culture. Ok, the teenage girls have gone overboard on Western fashion but bind my feet up and powder my face white there is still much you’ll see nowhere else, take politeness for a start.
So, my airline bike bag deposited in Osaka I then made my way South by train to Koyasan. My dismantled bike travelling with me in a train approved soft bag to ensure I don’t leave grease on the other paying customers. It was late afternoon when I’d reassembled to ride the few kms into this Buddhist town.

Blown away by the beautiful Danjōgaran temple as I ride into Koyasan.
I was both breathless from the climb and the tranquility of this amazing mountain top town. I was also rather surprised by the pockets of snow at the roads edge, it was biting cold. A noodle shop owner found me a hotel after I casually asked if he knew of any accomodation. It was perfect except where was it. There was no sign in English and I wandered about like a headless chook till a car mechanic down the road personally took me to the door and showed me inside.
Koyasan cemetery.
A highlight of Koyasan is the cemetery, “of course it is” I hear you say. The path through it is lit by lanterns at night. The mighty cedar trees and the assorted clumps of Buddhist statues take on a life of their own with the lanterns flickering shadows. Monks take tours at night, I could see them walking, clutching a lantern each as I left my hotel. It was both eerie and surreal but my stomach dictated I find food I hadn’t eaten since the noodle shop. Three elderly women looked surprised when I slid open the door to their ‘hole in the wall’ cafe and announced I was hungry. There were no other customers. Their first and only word in English was a question. Beer ? I must have looked Australian. They filled me with a broth and noodles and another beer whilst we all watched some weird Japanese game show. None of us were sure when to laugh. I’d been on the go for twenty-four hours and collapsed in my room after walking home through the cemetery. I woke to the sound of cars hissing on the road outside, it was raining.
I near drowned then froze whilst waiting to board the ferry to Tokushima.
How many layers of clothes can you wear and still manage to control your bike, “absolutely everything I’d brought with me” is the answer? It was a bitter, two degrees C and the downhill towards Wakayama Port did nothing to warm me up. The rain fell steadily. I shivered as I waited at the port with the trucks and cars, waited in the steady rain for an officious guy with a neon baton to direct us into the bowels of the ferry. I shivered for two and a half hours till we docked at Tokushima.
My first hotel was cheap but flash. They wouldn’t have a bar of my dripping wet bike coming upstairs instead pointing out the window to a bike park under the town square. I was amazed and peeved, thousands of bikes and tickets being dispensed in rapid succession , a dollar per day. As I left my bike against another I could hear my bike telling the commuter bikes that he was a travellin’ bike not a commuter bike. Not for him going to the university or the shopping centre, no, the open road was his thing. I got my revenge on the flash hotel for leaving my bike down in that cold bike park, I cleaned out the banquet style breakfast table. Yes I had a bit of everything, eggs four ways, three types of fish, three seaweeds, miso soup, orange juice, coffee. Ha ! I was set for the day.
Sea eagles salivating, waiting then swooping onto the trawlers returning to dock.
The sun peeked out on my way South, it was unexpected and the wind was at my back, life was good. I passed a number of people walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage. It is a route around the island where you visit eighty-eight Buddhist temples it’s become very popular not only with the Japanese but many foreigners come to traipse about. It takes a couple of months to visit them all. They all carry a pole and most wear a conical hat. I called out ‘bravo’ as I passed, they would lift their heads and smile a yellow toothless smile. I think it’s one of those ‘last minute in life’ things when you are looking for redemption or maybe trying to get fit. I felt I was doing a community service in spurring them on.
If I saw the hats and staffs of the pilgrims I was heading in the right direction.
The weather wasn’t improving much, in fact I’d barely taken my raincoat off. It stops the wind cutting through me or the rain from soaking me but it’s still terrific riding. The pilgrims have given the route I’m taking another dimension. Reassurance that I’m on the right track, I use them like highway signs, oh look there’s another one, tick. I am renowned for getting lost in case you didn’t know, so having these human markers was a blessing.
One night I arrived at my hotel to have a couple of pilgrims in front of me booking in. I was expecting they all slept on pine needles near the temples or on cold slabs of marble next to a prayer bell not in comfy hotels. Later that night I heard lustful noises in the room adjacent surely not the pilgrims ? Give me some poetic licence here….. but pilgrims wouldn’t be calling out “oh my god” or 何てことだ in Japanese nor would they have the energy ! At breakfast my eyes scanned the room, no-one was giving anything away. They’re a hard lot to pick the Japanese, rarely look you in the eye and play their cards close to their chests.
The pilgrims have driven me on. If they can slog it out on foot I should be able to do it easy on my bike wrapped in a raincoat with the wind smacking my face and legs, the only bits exposed. The pilgrims are a hardy lot even if they sleep in hotels. The temperature has rarely got into double digits. The goosebumps on my thighs are testament to the cold but the riding has been good and the countryside of rugged mountains, lonely islands and rocky outcrops changes faster than the weather.
I am yet to understand the people. They only look at you if addressed, otherwise they seem to be able to look into a void and pretend you’re not there, somehow give you privacy something the Chinese could consider… The Japanese also like to control nature, massive concrete batters on mountain slopes, high concrete sea walls, river beds concreted to slow the flow rate, it goes on. I know monsoons lash their coast, they are as ready as can be.
The controlling style of Zen gardens, nature on Japanese terms.
They compartmentise ( yes, I know it’s not a word spellcheck has already chastised me ) everything, they like things in order – compartmentalise. Look at the bento box, tiny compartments each filled with a weird but tasty morsel. I park my bike in a hotel basement, they rush to place barricades around it yet I don’t need to lock it. They build scaffolds BEFORE the house is built within. They have a window at the station for fare adjustments in case you choose the express which is dearer. They need to have the situation covered. An Aussie would simply ‘wing it’ hoping not to get caught ( there’s our convict heritage rearing its ugly head again) Yes there are many things here I can’t quite get but that’s why you leave home I guess, for difference.
So the riding continues my world has ritualistic cycles too. My one constant here is to have the sea on my left as I circumnavigate Shikoku. I ride over rugged mountain ranges that rise unapologetically all the way into the sea. I zoom along the flatlands between crusty old fishing villages where fishermen mend damaged nets in their yellow rain jackets. I regularly pass noisy ship building yards where the skeleton of new ships materialise only metres from the waters edge. The resonating sound of hammer on steel echoing out over the surrounding sea water. But my greatest fear is staying clear of the rumbling trucks coming up behind me in the endless tunnels when I have no place to go.
Shaking camera in hand I attempt a selfie as I pass through another tunnel.
Eventually I have to find my hotel, Google maps has taken the frustration out of it but I still prefer to first try to find my own way. Tired at the end of your days riding you must suddenly focus for fear of getting lost and hope that the suggested hotel is both easy to find, close to town and comfortable enough to enable you to rejuvenate for tomorrow.
Finally I seek some recognisable food, sometimes I am successful other times frustrated by the foreign signage, the kanji. These unrecognisable letters give me no idea whether I am about to enter a restaurant or a hair dressing salon till I’ve opened the sliding door and entered only to back out apologetically.
I trusted this chef / barman, he ate more than the customers.
My favourite eating spots have been the side streets, small local bars often only a dozen well worn stools supplementing the beer with char grilled skewers of meats and vegetables. It’s a gamble to slide open a door not knowing what is inside but rarely have I been disappointed. Even having no Japanese and them no English hasn’t been a hinderance. The chefs have always produced their best dishes for me and then there is the beer and local contact. Probably my favourite moment was in a seafood skewer and beer bar where the chef was working his way through a shoal of fish swimming like there was a future awaiting them except their numbers kept dwindling. Late in the evening and after my full quota of beer he was down to the last fish but it had other ideas. Net in hand and water splashing wildly that last fish gave him the slip for a good three or four scoops till I was booing the chef. Surely it’s three shots and he gets to live another day, no one else got it, eating fish is a serious business here. Good nights, no great nights.
This chef/ barman would never have made it as a fisherman.
Finally after two weeks and nearly 1100 kms I rolled into Himeji. I had been hoping that my return to the main island from Shikoku would be less traumatic but the volume of cars and trucks and wicked cold weather has made it more endurance than pleasure. So my last day of riding started with a quick tour of Okayama castle in mild conditions before heading towards Himeji. I had been hoping my day would be memorable maybe a tail wind and the winding coastal road interesting. Sadly the skies got progressively darker then the spots became a deluge. I pressed on, trucks covering me with road grit and choking fumes till I managed to find, no, was forced to find a smaller road. Less cars and trucks was good but the road was also in a state of disrepair so my concentration levels rose accordingly. The rain didn’t ease, my sodden gloved hands we’re shaking uncontrollably it was 4c. I turned off all outside reception and pushed on. I knew if I stopped that would be it, I would not be able to get warm inside again. Eventually it was over, six hours and 100 kms I was exhausted and saturated.
My hotel at $100 was a bit swisher than those I’d been staying in and struggled with my arrival. A girl rushed out as I tried to wheel my bike into reception, my bike dripping badly. No, no, no out here she ordered. Taking me to the side of the building and pointing where the staff stored their $100 work bikes. Pfff I said in my best Japanese accent, that won’t be happening.
Sitting crosslegged and in a zen like trance the mechanic trued my buckled wheel.
Inside I took off my raincoat and tried to check in, meanwhile the girl was running from one staff member to another finishing every sentence in pfff. Well at least she got that right. The manager came out and my pfff girl thrust a handful of new towels into her arms. Could you please let us wipe your bike if you must bring it in. I’ll clean it once I’ve checked in. No, we’ll do it she said in a Filipino Americano accent and started wiping every part of the wet bike, tyres, chain everything. The towels looked like they had done a lifetime in a mechanics workshop and would never adorn a clean wet body again. The bike is dry now and sitting proudly in my room you wet gear draped over it. I keep glancing at it, You can’t help but, the rooms are so tiny. Then I burst out laughing.
Oh Japan I love you. Get out there and give life a slap, Jeff
My best days cycling on the famous bridges between Imabari and Onomichi.
I took a deep breathe after my two weeks of riding was over. On reflection I’d come a bit early for bike riding but the window between icy Winter and humid Summer is small. I’d nailed it in South Korea on a similar longitude to Japan when I had started four weeks later. Still it was a great adventure and as always the people you meet along the way are the icing on the cake.
Walk to a nearby temple flood lit to celebrate the cherry blossom season.
A spur of the moment had me store my bike in Osaka and head North to meet Kylie for her last two days in Kyoto. I latched on to her week of exploring Kyoto to be shown a ‘best of’ version. The cherry blossom had taken on a life of its own, the trees literally trembling with the vigour of Spring. Pink tissue paper seemed to shoot from fat buds. I was starting to understand what the Japanese wet their pants over, and it wasn’t too much sake, the cherry blossom is both magical and the end of a long winter.
A stay in Kyoto is incomplete without a ramble along the Philosopher’s walk. If done early you can capture the tranquility before the masses make it feel more like a walk home from a local football match.
Ahh, the blossom.
The gurgle of the stream, the cherry blossom draping over the river, the local houses with their structured gardens and the damp, iridescent moss clinging to the stone sculptures at Honen-In temple are all part of the charm.
Up before the dawn again the next morning, the day sunny but the air sharp, a nose running, eyes watering 4c. On to two hotel bicycles I can hear my touring bike back in Osaka mumbling something about traitor ! We follow the river clinging with fog towards the Fushimi-Inari temple. Only the keen photographers have beaten us. The paths lead up past a series of temples and then beyond to thousands of Toriis (gates to the spirit world) leading you up into the mountains above. There are kms of them, every shade of vermillion imaginable. As you walk the path illuminates from the reflection of the low early morning sun breaking through between each torii.
Torii, torii, torri…..
Back to the hotel for breakfast where the smart ones are still fast asleep yet our day is already well underway. I struggle with the chopsticks, my hands still icy and yet to thaw. I was on temple overload by late afternoon. This was proven when I sat zombie like, mesmerised by a zen rock garden, raked stones and a few humble rocks at Ryoanji temple. Maybe I was just tired ?
Hiyajima Island. renown for tame deer and  orange Toriis sitting over the water.
Time to move on Jeff or you’ll soon be wearing a kimono and shuffling about with a samari sword in your belt. Two very fast trains have us a long way South to the town of Beppu, a favourite spa town I’d visited eight years ago. We drag our bags to a questionable “traditional” hotel. Think hotel rooms with paper thin walls, bamboo screens and communal toilets. The toilets are not only a long way from the room but reached by wearing miniature orthopaedic Japanese thongs and a final change to toilet slippers to the urinal, phew, just made it….
We spend the day up in the nearby hills above Beppu visiting seven various mineral springs all as hot as hell and all weird colours, brick red, pale blue and one a burping thick silver mud. Lunch is still along the steam theme with our food steamed using the thermal steam escaping the earth. A once in a lifetime experience because nothing was enhanced by the process, the meat insipid and grey, the eggs were a dirty purply pink, yum ?
Beppu an array of various coloured hot springs, still mind-blowing on second visit.
An onsen before dinner because there ain’t no other way to get clean other than a communal wash basin. Strip down, soap up squatting on a tiny milking stool then douse yourself in a pail of water before stepping into blistering hot mineral water. It’s a mixture of pleasure and pain, you can feel your muscles relax but you can also feel your feet being quickly poached to master chef perfection.
In celebration of not combusting in the cauldron hot onsen we head out for dinner. With curtains draped low over the doorways it’s difficult to gauge the number of diners at the restaurants until you are almost inside. Full bustling places are usually your only gauge of others satisfaction. As we stand in a doorway staring at a full house a local man starts to jabber in broken English and fast Japanese. He physically leads us around the corner to another Yakatori bar, it’s almost as full and we are welcomed with open arms. There are two spots along the bar. Beers are poured, a mixture of sign language, poking a finger at skewers on the counter and blind faith has our order taken. The bustle, the rowdy excited cries from the squatting tables for more sake, our food on beautiful ceramic dishes piled high with glossy meats, potato, leek and bacon wrapped tomatoes are all winners. The Japanese girls alongside Kylie chat enthusiastically to us of their after work drinks and snacks. She becomes so relaxed that she drinks Kylie’s beer, they both roar in laughter at the error. The chef tells us he is celebrating his birthday tomorrow but it looks like he has started a day early. Tabs are added, money changes hands. The till is a bamboo cone suspended above the bar. Everyone leaves with much bowing and ceremony. Another cracking good night.
Time to head to the hills in Kyushu prefecture. The only way to really get off the beaten tourist path here is with a car. We pick one up, Google translate had made it that even the guy cleaning the car can thrust his phone in your face with “can I put my bags in the back.” We’re off, through the busy Saturday morning traffic of Beppu heading inland and within an hour are on roads barely two car wide with cedar forests on one side and tiers of rice fields on the other. The windscreen wipers have been on high for three hours, when it rains it pours. Rivers run fast, waterfalls abound and the blossom laden trees bow low.
We reach Takachiho Gorge mid afternoon, the rain has stopped and we blindly head down a thousand steps to the valley floor below. Many small Japanese are returning the other way their normally pale faces red and breathing rapidly. Deep in the Gorge you can hire row boats to navigate through the narrows to a thundering waterfall. All I will say is that the Japanese have never won an Olympic gold in rowing and are unlikely to any time soon. A sudden shower has the locals rowing faster and us unprepared in our t-shirts.
It was bumper to bumper in the rowboats at Takachiho Gorge.
Two nights in a traditional Ryokan out in the country in the town of Iwatoya. Think zen like interior with stylish but minimalism, think very short legs on all the furniture. Think sleeping on the floor on a very thin futon, my bony hips rotating every half hour as the pressure builds. Think walls so thin every groan and moan in the adjoining room could be your own. Dinners and breakfast are included they are meals full of surprises. Dinner was thirteen courses, all elaborately presented most being not only unfamiliar but tasting like nothing I’d eaten before. My taste buds never sure whether the next mouthful would be sweet or savoury, firm or jelly like. You look at the waiter searching for reassurance and hope they aren’t sniggering in the kitchen.
No, I don’t remember requesting dress ups either ? or sleeping on the floor…..
Spent a day driving up to Mount Aso, the biggest, liveliest volcano in Japan only to arrive to be told an earth quake last year had decimated the tourist spot and a quick look around pretty much confirmed that. Missing sections of the road, buildings split in half with roofs sagging, no denying it. I guess we’re lucky we weren’t here on the day or worse on the chairlift. Back to the ryokan for more soaking, I’m the cleanest I’ve been since birth. Later that night a level 3 earth quake shakes the area and evidently our room on the third floor sways and shakes, I sleep through…. the tremor is talked of enthusiastically by the receptionist as we leave, “yes I was scared” she cries, great, I think…..
The cherry blossom was peaking and falling like pale pink confetti.
Back to Hiroshima, we walk the Shukkeien gardens, probably the most beautiful I’ve seen this trip. The cherry blossom peaking and the ponds bursting with koi all fighting for food as you walk near the waters edge. Dinner is nearby and the food a highlight of the trip. A place called Ayur where a single chef served beer and prepared eight dishes of luxe quality fish, A5 quality Kobe beef, silky tofu tempura, the list goes on. His twelve customers all swooning and crying out to him in clear view as he toiled in his tiny kitchen. His wife arrived after an hour to help him serve and pour the drinks and the room took on a more relaxed vibe. A table of four shinkensan conductors were having a good night out next to us.
No photo does justice to the magnitude of this ginormous timber temple.
Spent our last day out at the early capital of Japan, Nara. Walked till I was as passive as a Buddhist monk. The day got longer, the temples got bigger and the shuffling crowds began to match them. A mixture of prime time cherry blossom season and world heritage temples had half the country swarming over these ancient buildings. Buddha would have been proud of the crowd he pulled. Late afternoon we admitted defeat and headed to the “just as famous” Japanese railway system, it whooshed  us back to Osaka for a night-time flight home.
Bang for buck, you can’t beat a Japanese holiday for friendly helpful locals, exotic difference and clean crisp beer. I’ll be back, next time to ride the North.

Give life a slap…..