“Irasshaimase! Irasshaimase! Irasshaimase!”. Every member of staff gives a cheery welcome as soon as we walk in the door of the shop. A small robot then tries to sell us a mobile phone. As we start to fill up a basket with tasty sushi and ultra rare porridge oats, a man walks round with a hand bell yelling out the daily specials. Among the shelves are TV screens advertising products we don’t want and from somewhere an instrumental version of “Day Dream Believer” is playing on a continuous loop.
We reach the till to be greeted with another “Irasshaimase!” from behind a surgical mask then the price of each item is called out as it’s scanned through. Finally there’s the ritual of the credit card. I pass it over with two hands and it’s received by two more with a shallow bow and dignified “aragatto”. “I’m looking after your card” we’re told, “I’m taking 2450 yen”. Then the card is presented back to me and we’re sent off with our shopping with a deep bow and another “aragatto gozaimasu!”.. Tesco could learn a lot about customer service from the Japanese.
4th June – 22nd June 2016
We ride out of Osaka through some quiet back streets that feel more like a village than a megacity. Then the road heads up and over a ridge before dropping us down into Nara.
Japan has had more capitals than a teenager’s text message and Nara is one of the many towns that has had its turn at ruling the country. Among the ancient temples, tame dear hassle the tourists for snacks and pose for photos. The main attraction is an enormous wooden hall that houses an equally enormous bronze Buddha. As we enter he looks down on us with enlightened serenity. In one corner of the hall a group of schoolchildren are squeezing through a hole at the base of wooden pillar. Legend has it that the hole is the same size as one of the Buddha’s nostrils and if you can fit through it then it brings good luck. I’m just a bit too big and not as supple as the kids so have to settle for only partial good fortune by sticking my legs through.
Just up the valley is another former capital which we reach by following a winding, riverside cycle path. Kyoto is one of the busiest tourist destinations in Japan so there’s plenty for us to see but we’re up early thanks to the 5:30am train to Osaka that rumbles past a few metres from our tent porch. It’s tricky to find city centre parks so we have to put up with the inconvenience of the rude awakening for the convenience of a secluded patch of ground.
Getting an early start has its advantages though as we get to the very popular Fushimi Inari Shrine well ahead of the crowds. There are hundreds of bright orange torii gates leading off up the hill behind the temples and we’re lucky enough to be able to wander through the tunnel that they form with barely anyone else around. It offers a sense of peace and tranquility that will shortly be broken when the busloads of visitors arrive.
We’re not so lucky for the rest of the day as Kyoto is well and truly in full swing after 9am and we’re swimming through crowds at Kizomizu Temple and the Golden Pavilion. Usually getting around by bike is an advantage in this sort of place as we can cut through the traffic and park easily but in Japan things aren’t that simple. There are designated places where bikes can be parked, especially in cities, and if you leave one outside of these places then it could be taken away. At the Kizomizu Temple we’re shown to the appropriate place to park and then told we have to pay to leave the bike there! It’s not much but I’ve always objected to being charged to park a bike as cycling should be encouraged by being as low cost as possible. With a huff we find a side street and take our chances with the bike police, locking it to a lamppost just in case they try and take it away. Luckily it’s still there when we get back leaving us 200 yen richer and a whole lot more smug.
From Kyoto we climb over a small pass and are reacquainted with the train service as the railway line runs down the middle of the street, right alongside us as we approach Lake Biwa. This is Japan’s largest lake and stretches on for 65km in front of us.
We take up residence in a quieter lakeside park only for the peace to be broken by my ranting and raving when I discover our Leatherman penknife is missing. It was last used in Nara to take apart a tent pole that was being furnished with a new section to replace the one that we broke in Korea. I’m fairly sure that it’s still down there. Every now and then we talk about how far back we’d be prepared to ride if we’d forgotten something somewhere and the answer is always dependent on the value of the item and how hard the ride would be. In this case it would be a day and a half of riding round trip for a $110 penknife. That’s assuming it’s still there and not been snatched by a dog walker or crafty deer. I rant and rave and ponder and consult the map. The solution comes from a rumbling train in the distance.
So another train related early start sees me running to catch the 5:50 from Karasaki to Nara and by 10am I’m back in Karasaki again clutching the trusty knife triumphantly. It was exactly where we left it in a park near the temples. In most countries it would probably have been long gone but this is Japan where people think differently and wouldn’t even consider taking it. Almost every day we see people leaving their car running while they pop into a shop. Try doing that next you go to Asda and see if it’s still there when you come out.
Back on the bike we follow the lake shore then over a bridge that crosses its narrowest point. It’s a beautiful body of water so we can’t resist a lunchtime dip. In the distance we can see the hills are becoming mountains and it’s towards these that we turn the next day. We’re now in the Gifu prefecture famous for being the start of the Japanese Alps, but before we head upwards we stop to be given some energising sour plums by a local artist. We’d met Taka in a supermarket and she invited us back to her house so we can see some of her work. While we admire her watercolours she brings out a plate of home grown plums that have been soaked in salt water. It’s a popular snack here and is also a popular test for foreign visitors. We’re supposed to run away crying at their sourness which brings amusement to the Japanese tormentor who offers them. Unfortunately for Taka we actually quite like them and gratefully take the bagful that she offers us. Before we leave she asks for our address and promises to send a book of her paintings for us to enjoy when we get home. Hopefully she’ll include some plums too?
A river cuts into the hills making our life relatively easy for the next 50km as we pedal along the road that hugs its banks. This seems to be a very popular place for people to stand in the river as for this entire stretch there are fishermen every 10 or 20m. We don’t see anyone having much success but I guess the actual catching of the fish is only part of the appeal of this sport.
The easy gradient couldn’t last though and soon we’re clicking down through the gears and turning on the power to winch up to 950m. Eagles wheel overhead, unfazed by the traffic and probably having more success with the fish in the river. Grassy ski runs have static chair lifts sitting idle up alongside them, waiting for another winter to arrive. Down the other side we speed past huge reservoirs surrounded by dense pine forests and arrive in a village full of wooden houses with steep thatched roofs. This is Shiragawa and the image of the chalet-like buildings, blue green river and wooded mountains gives the impression that we’ve dropped into Austria or Switzerland. This is exactly what William Gowland, the “Father of Japanese Archaeology”, thought when he explored the area and christened these the Japanese Alps.
We climb steeply out of Shiragawa for 10km then roll over the top of the pass for a lengthy, high speed descent into Takayama. It’s still June so still rainy season, though we’ve been lucky to have great weather for the last few days. But having not made it all the way through the hole in the column in Nara our good luck was limited and in Takayama the rain returns. We wake up to find we’re in a very soggy tent. The groundsheet is no longer as waterproof as it was when we started so the overnight downpour has seeped in. In situations like this we just have to hope there’s some sunshine later in the day so we can get everything out to dry.
There’s no danger of getting cold, even in the rain as it’s still 20 degrees and there’s another long climb ahead to keep the blood pumping. We’re now getting high up into the mountains and arrive at the spa resort town of Hirayu where hot water is pouring out of the ground and into troughs beside the road. There’s a foot bath that we decide works just as well as a full body bath so get fully submerged while no-one is looking. Clearly a breach of etiquette but luckily no one sees us to be able to tell us off. No one spots us moving into the generously sized wooden hut that houses the toilets either so we avoid another potential soaking in the tent.
The next day we’re on a mission. From Hirayu we have access to the highest road in Japan and of course we’re keen to climb it. Setting off early we steadily pedal up the first 500m knowing we need to save energy as there’s another 1000m after this. There’s dense white fog ahead and out of the gloom a man with an orange baton jumps out in front of us with his arms crossed to form an X. I play chicken and keep riding straight at him but he holds his ground so we have to stop. After some heated discussion, neither side understanding the other, he runs to his hut and returns with a sign in English saying the road is closed to cyclists because of the fog.
Having come this far we decide to sit it out, but after 2.5 hours if anything it’s got worse. In the meantime a man on a trials bike turns up, a saddle-less bike with a tiny gear that is even more inappropriate for climbing a mountain than a fully laden tandem. Then a couple of roadies arrive who’ve ridden up from Takayama. We’re all turned away though and despondently we drop back down to Hirayu and take the alternative, road over a lower pass. The skyline pass will have to wait for another time.
Snaking down the hairpins on the other side of the climb then winching up a long steep tunnel we arrive in Kamikochi where the alpine views unfold in spectacular fashion. Around us the mountains rise to over 3000m and wear snowy caps while forests with 100 different shades of green decorate the steep hill sides. A sign in the visitors’ centre warns of a bear sighting near the village that morning but we take our chances by pitching the tent on the river bank rather than the $20 per head camp site. In the morning it’s a lovely hike up to the Dakesana Hut and on to the snow line for a high rise view of the valley below.
Out of Kamikochi we return back down the steep tunnel then continue to descend for most of the rest of the afternoon. There are tunnels aplenty as we cruise from light to dark to light then over a huge dam before continuing down and down and from light to dark to light. By the time we reach Matsumoto we’ve dropped 1500m but only had to climb 150m which makes for a nice change of ratio from the previous days.
We set up camp close to the famous Matsumoto Castle which bears very little resemblance to what we’d consider to be a castle by European standards. There appear to be no portcullises, draw bridges, death holes or archers slots. It is very pretty though and in Japan aesthetics seem to take precedence over protection. Our complacency over the apparent safety in this country takes a knock when our camera battery charger gets taken from a socket in the public loo. I really should have made more of an effort to crawl through that hole in the pillar.
And the rain returns to keep us cool while we climb up and over a toll road through Ueda and up again with the road skirting around Mount Asama, the most active volcano on Honshu. There are fields of vegetables as far as the eye can see, no doubt making use of the fertile volcanic soil.
The volcanic activity inevitably brings with it a hot spring town. In Kusatsu they have more hot water than they know what to do with and a steaming hot river right through the town. It seems a shame that this energy isn’t being harnessed more productively than just for bathing. But seeing as they gone to the effort of building several public onsen we hop into one and enjoy a soak and a scrub.
Once again we’ve been earning plenty of altitude so can cash it in for an afternoon of descending now, freewheeling almost all the way down to Nakanojo. Which leaves us with one final hill that will take us out of the Alps and onto the Kanto plain. It’s the biggest of the lot as we gain 1200m in one hit. Actually it takes two hits as bad light and low energy levels force us to stop just before the summit
We’re asked to move on quickly in the morning as it turns out the nice lakeside spot we’d chosen is private property, so we scoff our porridge and head for the top. At 1800m it’s the highest we’ve ridden since India which seems surprising given the distance we’ve covered since then. With this much height to lose we know we’re in for an easy morning. I check the brakes and we take off down the mountain, at one point giving a cautious Ferrari a run for it’s money as it tentatively negotiates the hairpins.
Coming up the other way are dozens of motor bikes and road cyclists. This isn’t far from Tokyo so is a popular destination for a weekend escape from the city. The town of Nikko also brings in the crowds as it’s yet another former capital with more exquisite temples and shrines. Unique to this one though is an imperial horse which occupies a sacred stable in the temple complex for a few hours a day. On the stable is the original three monkeys carving struck in the pose of ‘see no evil, hear no evil,speak no evil’. They are there because there used to be a belief that monkeys could cure sick horses, equine nurses take note.
When the temples were built in the 1600’s the feudal lords were asked to help pay for them. One lord who couldn’t afford to make an offering decided to plant some trees instead. He put in 40,000 cedars on the road leading out of Nikko and 400 years later there are still 16,000 of them left. This makes it the longest tree lined road in the world. It’s an impressive road to ride along with the cedars towering overhead and this avenue leads us out onto the Kanto plain for our final run into Tokyo. This huge flat region is home to 42 million people, nearly ⅓ of the population, so our expectations are for a busy last 100km before we reach the (current) capital.
In fact what we get is a wide strip of green land bordering the river Tone with a traffic free cycle path running alongside. This helps us speed into Tokyo largely unhindered other than a bit of resistance from a pesky headwind.
The last time we paid for accommodation was in Tianjin just before we left China so we’ve promised ourselves a night in a hotel to reward ourselves for having made it all the way here. But being Tokyo there are numerous quirky options for places to sleep. Fancy a night in a hotel where it’s Christmas every day? Or how about a Hello Kitty themed room? Or being woken up by Godzilla? We opt for the relatively tame option of a capsule hotel where instead of a full size room you spend the night in a narrow compartment no bigger than a single bed and with barely enough height to sit up in. The capsules are stacked two high along the length of the room giving the impression of a pet shop with human exhibits. The original concept was dreamed up to cater for hardworking businessmen who’d missed the last train home and just needed a simple cheap bed for the night. Many are still men only but a few, including ours, now allow women to stay too. It’s a popular tourist gimmick that we enjoy buying into.
Before settling down for the night we head over to the Shinjuku area to wander among the bright neon lights and enjoy the atmosphere of the bustling nightlife. In an ironic twist though we miss our last train so have to get a very expensive taxi back to our capsules.
All through Japan the main staple has been seafood. Apparently 6% of the world’s fish harvest is consumed here, and a third of that is sold through Tsukiji Fish market in Tokyo. 2000 tonnes of scales, fins, tentacles, blubber, roe and shells pass through the doors of this the world’s biggest fish market each day. It takes an early start (too early for Kirsty) to get there in time to wander around and peer into the polystyrene tubs to see what lurks within and the manic buying and selling activity leaves very little room for nosy spectators. Several times I nearly get run over by a turret truck on its mission to collect some frozen tuna.
We’ll be back to see more of Tokyo in a few days but for now we’re continuing on south and have to battle through the streets of adjacent Yokohama without the luxury of a cycle path. It’s a stressful journey that we’re keen to get away from so we stop in what appears to be a quiet park and decide to settle there for the night. Unfortunately our quiet park is also floodlit so once it gets dark our tent is lit up like a beacon. We decide to take our chances and stay put, but once again luck is not with us. At 9:30 we’re woken up by some commotion outside and when I peer out of the front door I’m met by three policemen. Have they finally caught up with the riders of the illegal tandem? No, they’re more concerned about us camping in their park and tell us to pack up and move on to the nearest hotel. Kirsty has a rule that once our mats are inflated then no-one is going to make us move until morning so I’m obliged to argue our case. I present our magic letter that explains who we are and why we might be camping somewhere unusual and it seems to have the desired effect. They make a phone call and ask us to wait. A few minutes later and after another call they ask us what time we plan to leave. “6am officer” I reply, “Make it 5am and you can stay”, “Deal”.
By 6am the next morning we’re on our way again.
We end up in the lovely seaside town of Hyama as the guests of Mark and Miki. Back in the mountains in India we spent an evening with Mark and his friend John sharing one of the finest camp sites of our entire trip. We exchanged stories of touring exploits and triathlon racing endeavours and before we parted company Mark left us with an open invite to stay with him once we got to Japan. It’s now that we are able to take him up on that kind offer. Their home is just the refuge we need after being on the go for over a month and we plan to spend a few days off the bike to recuperate. When we’re ready to move again we have one more island to visit, Hokkaido up in the far north which we’ll reach by ferry.
This leg through Japan has been full of wonder and so far it’s been a country that sits high on the list of favourites. The run of misfortune with the weather, the forgotten knife, the stolen charger and the encounter with the police has been playing on my mind though.
Should I have tried harder to squeeze through that hole? Then it hits me, Kirsty didn’t try crawling through at all! No wonder we’ve not been more blessed.
Japan is a very photogenic country so there are lots more photos in our Japan Gallery.