Japan is quite rightly proud of its unique culture and traditions. As an island country it’s managed to preserve its identity (helped by being cutoff from the rest of the world for two hundred years) while the rest of Asia gradually grows together. It’s a fitting place for us to be while we wait for the results of the referendum to decide if our own country will return to being independent of its continental neighbours.
As the swingometer leans in favour of the ‘leave the EU’ option we watch Facebook fill up with the shocked response from our friends back home. They’re waking up to the news that Brexit is going to happen and the general consensus is that this is a very bad thing. We’re shocked too. The world has changed a lot since we left home in 2014 but this event will have the most immediate effect on us right here and right now and in a terrible form. Thanks to the sudden drop in value of the pound our sushi will cost us 14% more and so we’re crying into our macha tea.
Having the run of Mark and Miki’s house for a few days makes for a wonderful break from the routine of the road. A hi-fi and a huge stack of CDs puts a big smile on my face as it’s been so long since we’ve been able to enjoy the simple pleasure of sitting and listening to music for a few hours.
Hayama is a lovely little town only an hour south of Tokyo by train but a world away from the big busy city. The Emperor has a house here for a good reason. We swim in the sea, explore the temples of nearby Kamakura and try some local sashumi while enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of a beach community.
It’s hard to ignore the lure of Tokyo though so we head back up there a couple of times on ‘days out’. It seems to be a city that offers something for everyone, no matter how obscure your interests are with quirks and cults taken to levels of obsession. One example of this is the rise in popularity of fixed gear bikes. On street corners cool hipsters prop themselves up against meticulously assembled track bikes and street racers. We stumble across a specialist ‘fixie’ shop on Cat Street where for ¥40000 ($400) you can select the colour of each and every component on your new bike. There are 300 different saddles to choose from alone including some rather smart Harris tweed options. All very tempting.
One of the more eccentric sights is the Tokyo Rockabilly Club. This long standing institution has been jiving in Yoyogi park every Sunday for decades. Kirsty’s mum saw them when she was here in 1985. With greased back hair, full denim outfits and moves straight out of Blue Suede Shoes this collection of 50’s throwbacks put on a great show.
The main reason for heading up to Tokyo though is to go for a paddle on the 1964 Olympic rowing lake. As the guests of Partez Rowing Club we’re assigned a seat in two different quads and enjoy an evening racing up and down this historic stretch of water. Unfortunately it’s not up to scratch for modern competition so won’t be used when the Olympics return in 2020 but it remains the home of some of the top clubs in the country. Partez make use of the Mitsubishi boat house, an enormous building with racks of boats, a gym, a canteen, dormitories. Many of the multinational Japanese firms support full time athletes in various sports so it’s possible to get a job purely on the basis of your athletic ability. I quite like the sound of that so if any British companies need some professional cycle tourists to represent them then please get in touch. The outing ends in a typically Japanese way with all the rowers stood in a circle and we take it in turns to say what we enjoyed about the evening. Finally we all bow and say ‘arragatto’ before heading home.
Another uniquely Japanese activity that we wanted to experience is Keirin racing. Gambling is hugely popular here and it seems every small town has at least one Pachinko hall full of very loud, very bright gaming machines. Anything that can be raced can be bet on, from boats to horses to bikes and Keirin cycling is one of the most popular sports to have a flutter on.
The Tokyo oval feels more like a dog track than a high performance cycling venue. This is a far cry from the kind of place knights of the realm like Sir Chris and Sir Bradley would race. Groups of men are hunched over pages of names and stats, studying the form and digging into their pockets for their next bet. Soon a tuneful fanfare signals the countdown to the next race. The riders appear wearing colourful outfits, looking like jockeys but puffed up with protective padding. A ‘hare’ in the form of a pace rider is attached to his start gate while the racers line up 10m behind. Then they’re off! The pacer winds up the speed over several laps, just like the durney in the Olympics, then he peels off unleashing the pack for the final sprint. Despite the low key atmosphere these guys are quality athletes and ride fast and hard to earn their living and it makes for entertaining racing. As they cross the line my man fades back into the pack while Kirsty’s hot tip gets pipped at the post. We both tear up our slips, ¥100 ($1) down the drain.
But the show’s not over. Remember when Wiggo stood on the podium on the Champs Elysees having won The Tour de France and announced he was about to draw the raffle? Well here the winner does actually draw the raffle. The crowd jostle for position on numbers in front of the podium and after a short speech the fastest man pulls out a few tickets and t shirts are handed out. Lucky for us one winner isn’t so keen on his prize and hands it over as a gift. Mark also gets given one as we’re leaving the stadium. It’s a fine way to spend an evening and everyone has been very friendly as well as offering commiserations over the Brexit vote. It’s news that the whole world seems to have taken an interest in.
With another day to prep the bike, fitting new tyres, trueing the rear wheel and checking nuts and bolts we’re almost set to get going again. First we have one last trip to Kamakura where we meet up with an ex colleague of Kirsty’s. Muk has been following our journey with interest since the very beginning and it’s great to meet up with him over a dinner of fresh tuna throat and local beer. It’s interesting to hear his comparisons of the working conditions in Japan compared to when he was in Bristol. Working 9 – 7pm often with compulsary overtime on top makes for a tiring existence and explains why most people seem to be snoozing on the train when we head back to Hayama.
With heaps of thanks to Mark and Miki and feeling relaxed, well and rested we’re ready to hit the road again. Just as we’re getting back into the swing of things though, thick fog delays our ferry across the Bay of Tokyo from Kurahama by half a day. It’s only a slight hitch and with all four legs motoring for two days we race up through Chiba to Oarai to catch our next ferry to Hokkaido. As we’ve come to expect from this part of the world on board there’s a hot bath to dip into and a comfy mattress on the floor to sleep on for the 21 hour voyage.
Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan and has enjoyed independence and occupation in various forms over the years giving it a more unique flavour than other parts of the country. The population is spread more sparsely amongst the mountainous landscape creating more remote regions and a complete contrast to the mania of the Kanto region we’ve just left. It’s also the home of around 2000 bears so although we don’t want one in the tent with us we’re really keen to try and spot one from a safe distance.
Moving north at this point in the year is perfect timing as the rainy season on Honshu ends and with typical Japanese precision a hot sticky summer begins at the start of July. The climate on Hokkaido however works differently so is milder and more comfortable. Our first animal encounter occurs in a park in Tomakomai when a fox tries to steel some food from the porch of the tent then stands as bold as brass looking at me when I shout at it. Hopefully the bears will be more timid.
Our route has been cobbled together based on other blogs, recommendations from Mark and a desire to get to Shiretoku at the far north eastern corner. Moving north we quickly find ourselves in amongst forests, fields and rolling hills giving the impression of a European countryside view. The deep blue sky seems huge and we breath in the clean air. Into the Ubari region we stop for supplies and find a supermarket selling some of the region’s famous cantaloupe melons. At $160 for five small fruit it would have to be a mighty fine melon to justify the cost and it’s something we decide we can live without. We’re the kind of people who spend the night in the lobby of a public loo so perhaps not their target customers anyway.
I should point out that Japanese toilets are unlike any others in the world. We bumped into a spanish cyclist in Korea whose first comment when we told him we were going to Japan next was “they have great toilets there”. Without exception public facilities are immaculate, always well stocked with paper and are often heated and have electrical power points. Electricty is important as the toilets themselves often have an array of controls for washing, drying and heating parts of the body that come into contact with it. There’s sometimes a button for activating a discreet running water sound for those who are shy about the noises their bodily functions make too. It means that toilet blocks are cosy homes for tired and thrifty cyclists. One word of warning though, it’s not always clear what all the buttons do so if you’re not careful you may set off the panic alarm, in which case, move on quickly.
After a 90km stretch of wilderness without a single shop or single bear sighting we return to civilisation at Iuano and then further on pass through Nakafuano, famous for its lavender fields and brightly coloured flowers that colour the hillside. To our right there are snow topped mountains and after rounding Asahikawa we head towards them.
The road narrows down into a gorge with waterfalls cascading off the cliff edge. Unfortunately it then disappears into a tunnel so we are deprived of any more views for the next 3km. Once we’re back in the sunshine we begin climbing with the highest road on the island up ahead, the Mikuni pass. There’s no doubt that ice cream tastes better at altitude so the cafe at the top is a welcome sight where we sit down to rest and replace lost calories. The views over the forest below are spectacular and we can see our descent snaking through the trees and in places taking tree top bridges over small valleys.
Thanks to a tip from a Hokkaido resident’s website (www.14degrees.org) we turn off the main road part way down and venture deeper into the woods on an unpaved track. We’d heard noises outside the tent the night before and there are various signs warning about the wildlife so we make sure we make plenty of noise with singing and shouts of “heeeey bear!”so that no one gets startled. It’s great to be away from any traffic even for only a couple of hours.
We make it back onto asphalt safe and sound and before long we’re on our way to the northern coast of the island at Abashiri. Passing wild horses grazing and fields of wild flowers with the sea on one side and volcanic mountains on the other this stretch makes for a great day to be on the bike. During a rest stop a lady gives us a punnet of fresh strawberries to help us along. We’d met her on the ferry and even though she’s travelling by bus we’ve managed to get here in the same time as her. Perhaps we’re not as slow as we thought.
The coast curves round alongside the Sea of Othosk and takes us onto the Shiretoku Peninsula. I’d first heard of this place from Neil, who we’d met at the NLCS on Jeju. He’d told me that locals fish alongside bears in a unique relationship where neither side is threatened by the other. It’s also a region that has one of the highest population density of bears in the world so this seems to be the perfect place to come for that elusive sighting.
Half way up the penninsula the road turns inland and we ascend the Shiretoku Pass. Foxes and deer watch us as we grind up the hill but nothing larger. At the top we’re rewarded with views of Mount Rasu Dake and out to sea Kunashiri island hogs the horizon. This is an island under dispute as Russia claim it’s theirs but Japan thinks it should belong to them. As it’s only 16km from Hokkaido but several 100 km from the Russian mainland you can see why the Japanese are a bit miffed about the current situation.
A few people are training enormous camera lenses on the hillside but judging by the level of excitement there doesn’t appear to be much to watch so we drop down the other side of the pass. Just before Rasu we pull over and wander into the woods for a bath. There’s a natural hot spring, the Bear Onsen, tucked amongst the trees though luckily it’s not bath day for the bears.
There’s something about reaching the extremities of an island that sits at the extremities of a country. We felt it when we rode up to the top of Unst in the Shetland Isles and also out on Uto in Finland. It’s as if we’re riding to the edges of the world with only a raging sea to contend with once the land stops. It’s no surprise then that Shiretoku actually means ‘edge of the world’.
We ride up to the end of the road on the east side of the peninsula and camp amongst ramshackle fishing huts and a few houses that sit on the edge of a gravel beach. They have to take the full brunt of the Pacific during the winter and most of them are showing signs that they’re only one more big storm away from being claimed by the sea. There’s another onsen built into the beach which provides a lovely setting for our early morning bath. As we’re towelling off a Swiss couple arrive in a camper van and we exchange a shared amazement for the hardy community that lives out here. They ask if we’ve seen any bears which of course we haven’t. “That’s a shame, we saw one crossing the road in front of us on the pass just yesterday”. I guess it’s all about being in the right place at the right time.
We make our way down the east coast and then come inland onto the flatter southeast corner where the land is mostly taken up by dairy farms. Hokkaido is where the majority of Japan’s milk products come from and is also where our favourite (and only) Japanese cheese is produced.
Further inland we ride towards Lake Kusshara where the hills reappear and one of them appears to be on fire. A boiling hot sulphur spring sits at the base of Mount Io with bright yellow rocks and clouds of steam .There’s more hot water to be found at the lake itself with a beach where you can dig in the sand to make your own onsen then further down a more formal bath built out of rocks on the edge of the lake. Watching the sunset while soaking in the warm water is one of our most pleasant evenings so far.
A tip from Mark sends us up to Lake Akan but he hadn’t warned us this would involve a 750m climb. The lake is famous for what must be the only algae in the world that is deemed to be a tourist attraction. Unique green balls called Marimo form on the lake bed and are said to look ‘cute’. This isn’t the destination Mark had recommended though and there’s more climbing to be done first. A left turn takes us higher up whereby Kirsty submits and sends me on alone. Up past a blue green lake before a turning onto a rough trail eventually brings me to another onsen. This one is a bit special as it sits at the top of a waterfall of hot water. Scrambling up alongside the steaming cascades I find the pool tucked in amongst rocks and trees and ease myself in for a dip. Mark was here 25 years ago and says he’ll never forget sitting in the hot water while it poured with rain overhead. I suspect I’ll take a lasting memory away too.
After collecting Kirsty and camping in a car park we begin rapidly descending for the entire next morning. Even when the hill peters out we continue south at speed on nice flat roads surrounded by fields of sweetcorn and a few vineyards. Our target now is the southern cape at Erimo.
We reach the south coast at Hiroo and can’t resist following signs to Santa Land. If you’ve ever wished it could be Christmas every day then this is the place for you. It’s a suitably surreal Japanese experience walking into a room full of Christmas trees, nativity scenes and minature Santa Claus’s in the middle of July.
Several tunnels punctuate the headlands as we follow the coast. In places the old road that hugs the bottom of the cliff is still visible and we try to take this to avoid the longest, 5km tunnel. We swerve round an unintelligible sign and have a great ride with the sea spray being flung over the wall by the side of the road. It all comes to an abrupt halt after 4km where the sea has reclaimed the road and forces a u-turn back to the mouth of the tunnel. I guess the sign said road closed.
Once we arrive at the tip of the cape we’re almost blown over. The view is magnificent but it’s blowing a gale. No wonder this is the home of the Museum of Wind which sits burried safely in the ground to stop it being sent skyward.
The villages along the south western edge of the cape are reknown for their kelp harvesting and we see tons being hauled out of the sea and laid out to dry. Erimo Konbu is the best in Japan for making seaweed soup and is very valuable. Unfortunately we don’t get to try any and to be honest the slimy green-brown strips don’t look all that appetising.
As we make our way up the coast we bump into another tandem crew. Mark and Mio are spending a few weeks touring in Hokkaio and are also flaunting the anti-tandem laws. In fact their bike is made in Japan, presumably only available on the black market from dealers who operate in dark alleyways.
We’re now in an area popular with race horse stables and I chat with a trainer as we rest outside a 7-11. He speaks good English as he’s spent a few years in Cambridge and his knowledge of British geography is determined by the location of various race courses. He can identify Bristol quite rightly as being between Bath and Chepstow. There’s time for one last Onsen, this time in a smart spa-type building. It’s another unusual experience sitting in a sauna watching the sumo on TV. These enormous wrestlers seem to spend more time dancing, slapping their thighs and trying to psyche out their opponents but when they do eventually come to blows it’s usually a brutal and short-lived fight.
We get wind assistance all the way back to Tomakomai although the final afternoon includes a soaking when the heavens open. It doesn’t matter though as we’re coming to the end of the Japanese leg of our journey so can hide in a cafe for a while to dry off. We spend a day collecting packing materials for our flight – polythene sheeting for the bike, sacks for the panniers, re-waterproofing the tent and enjoying the tastiest Japanese delicacies that we’ll miss.
On the morning that we’re due to fly out we arrive at the New Chitose Airport nice and early and set up shop in the corner of the check in area. The soggy tent comes out to dry after another rainy night and the bike gets partially dismantled. The security guard isn’t too impressed but a smile and a ‘non understanding foreigner’ act is enough to persuade him to leave us to it.
Ahead is a gruelling 21 hour journey that will take us to Shanghai before another flight brings us back over Japan and on to Vancouver. I’d looked into taking a container ship to get across the pacific but the logistics and cost were prohibitive so unfortunately we’ll have to endure this pair of flights instead. But still, the prospect of a new continent is exciting and there’s a whole lot more riding to be done if we’re going to be home in time for Christmas. Aragatto Japan, you’ve been amazing and Hokkaido in particular has been a highlight. We’ll be leaving feeling cleaner than ever but unfortunately without a bear sighting. That doesn’t matter though as apparently there are bears in North America. Let’s hope they have hot baths too.