Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Day 727 - Hiroshima, Honshu island

Good news…I think this may be a short posting, I don’t’ have that much to write for a change, may be that is why I am starting with a bit of waffle!

We had a late start from Matsuyama, my fault entirely due to a last minute panic as I realised I had some matters from back home that needed to be sorted out before I would next find internet access…who said life on the road is all easy? So after a problematic start to the day things could only get better, they did. We had a really easy route out of Matsuyama, just a case of heading north all on one road and to make matters even better it had a very good cycle path for about the first 20k. It went through a couple of tunnels and through those the cycle path was about as wide as the road with a good surface and good lighting, if only all the tunnels were like that. Once the road reached the coast it became single carriageway without the cycle path, normal service resumed. We stopped for lunch right beside the sea, the weather was in decline, it started to drizzle as we ate our smoked fish. We were back on the road in time to see a dog being walked by its owner, the dog wearing a nappy, made to measure by the look of it. Before long we were on slightly quieter roads heading for an archipelago of islands that we would cross in the next couple of days, all connected by a series of expressway bridges built in 1985. The first one was the biggest, 7.5km in length with 6 towers. The bridge came into sight, all we had to do was try and get on it via the cycle path. We chose the right option and before long we were heading around in circles up a very impressive cycle ramp to join the expressway across the bridge. I would have thought more money had been spent on this one cycle path that on all the cycle paths in the UK put together, but at least this one was heavily used, we saw dozens of cyclists on the track, the first time that we have seen pleasure cyclists in any numbers. The views from the bridge were great but would have been even better if the weather had been a little clearer. After about 5-6km of cycling on the island we were already in the centre and spotted a sign to Rose Garden. We headed there in the hope of finding somewhere to camp but for some reason were really surprised to find that it was….a Rose Garden! I don’t know why, but neither of us expected that. We started to backtrack only to find a small track leading away from the road into a lovely little bamboo wood which made a perfect little campsite for the night.

The forecast for the following day was rain, but we set off to a warm but overcast day. Being a Sunday we expected to see far more cyclists than yesterday, as it happened we saw no more than about 5 the whole day. We crossed to the second island, then followed the well signed route across the 3rd bridge, all very impressive. On the fourth island we took the long route around the island to see the temple of Kosanji (photo). This is a bit of an oddity, created by a former wealthy steel merchant after the death of his mother. The temple was designed by taking aspects from all the best temples around Japan and creating them on his doorstep, then becoming a reverend to enable the structure ‘temple’ status thus freeing it from any taxes. The finished item was all a bit strange and had the feel of an Indian temple rather than anything from Japan. The best part of the whole place was the old house that his mother used to live in with it beautifully manicured gardens. Whilst we were there the rain started, we dashed between the buildings trying to stay dry, we could hardly see the nearby hills. The temple had various stamps place around and if you filled in all the spaces on a sheet of paper they gave you, then you received a free postcard. I was surprised to find that everybody followed it religiously, appropriate in a temple I suppose. It was still raining when we were ready to start cycling again so we took refuge outside a supermarket and had a little snack. It wasn’t going to stop raining and neither of us could eat anymore, we were going to have to move on in the rain. It didn’t take long before we were soaked. We crossed the bridge to the next island and could hardly see any land let alone a decent view. We decided to push on to the 6th island and then just find somewhere to camp, hopefully out of the rain. By the time we were crossing the bridge it had stopped raining, we were getting an ever improving view and even beginning to enjoy the cycling again. We passed a reasonable spot to camp right beside the sea but decided we would find something more secluded, though in reality we started to enter a built up area that turned into a town, none of which was marked on the maps. Camping wasn’t looking great, I was getting my ear chewed off by Christine who wanted to return the 5km or so to the spot we had seen by the sea, though I was reluctant to return into a head wind, we were late enough as it was. Luck was on my side, we made for the hills, turned down a track I had spotted that climbed a little, then came to an end. Climbing up a steep bank by taking one bike at a time and both of us pushing we made it to the top and a nice secluded little wood, and quiet enough for Christine to calm down again.

Come morning within a couple of kilometres we were crossing the last of the 7 bridges, all as impressive or bigger than the Severn Bridge back home. The logistics of creating such an expressway are incredible, it was very impressive and made for a truly great ride. We arrived in the small town of Onomichi, another town packed with over 25 temples. We saw people walking around them all, collecting a stamp at each one, they are rubber stamp crazy here. We visited a temple high up the hill giving us great views of the last bridge we had crossed. Cycling along the coast wasn’t fun, though we hadn’t expected it to be, too much traffic, too much urban sprawl, what a mess! After Yasuura we turned on to what we had expected to be a back road, but it wasn’t, though it was at least a little quieter. We were climbing too. After a while we decided we really ought to start looking for a place to camp, so we soon turned off and rode through some terraced fields. People were working in the fields so we asked one for permission to camp. We were turned down, but we weren’t sure if he had understood us. Around the corner we asked a woman for permission, so she went off to speak to her friends. Judging by all of the pointing up the hill things were looking pretty good. I could tell by her body language as she returned that indeed all as well, though I was really surprised to find that we were being allowed to camp on an unused terrace down the hill, not up it. To make matters worse she didn’t want us to take the bikes across, so we left them in a shed and walked along the terrace edge with a 4m drop on one side carrying all our baggage, it took 2 trips. We could see them all up the hill having a little natter about us, then another woman turned up and seemed to be indicating that we should look at her house, so back we went along the edge of the terrace, my sense of balance already improving. We followed her to her house where she seemed to have the Japanese equivalent of a Granny flat that she said we could stay in, a delightful little place complete with a lovely tatami room, typically Japanese. Another two journeys of balancing along the terrace edges and we were riding to the house. Surprisingly, when we arrived she told us that she and her husband were going elsewhere for the night and would return at 9am the following morning, we had the place to ourselves, very trusting. So all was well….or was it? Actually, no it wasn’t. We were right beside the road and Christine can not stand the slightest noise, I could see that she was very worked up and hardly knowing what to do with herself. My comments that the road would quieten down at night did little to console her, “There is no way I will sleep, and if I do I will be woken by every car that passes”. Once we had finished dinner, and as I wrote my diary she lay on the floor and put earplugs in to see just how bad it was going to be. Minutes later she was sound asleep, cars passed and she didn’t stir, I could here her breathing heavily as she slept. I left her in peace but when she eventually woke she was off again “There is no way I am going to be able to sleep through this, every car wakes me up”. I think she found it hard to believe it when I told how well she had been sleeping.

By morning she was a little happier, she had got plenty of sleep though it hadn’t been perfect by any means. The run into Hiroshima was a busy one and involved a couple of minor climbs, though that is hardly an oddity in Japan, there isn’t a lot of flat around here. On the way into town we met the first touring cyclist we have met since we have been here, a Japanese guy who had been on the road for 6 months and lives in Tokushima, a town we had passed through a couple of days ago. Once we had sorted out somewhere to live for a couple of nights we went straight to the Peace Memorial Park. First stop was the Museum, a very powerful museum giving a full documented history of before, during and after the fateful day of 6th August 1945 when the first Atom Bomb the world had ever seen was deployed, detonated 600m above the city centre killing thousands of people in seconds. It was one of the most fascinating, moving and sad museums I have visited. There were images and models of before and after the event, hardly a single building remained standing within a 3km radius of the hypocentre and by the end of 1945 140,000 people had died. Hiroshima has turned itself into a Peace City with a large memorial park at its centre and to this day it continues to fight for the end of nuclear weapons. Across from the Peace Memorial Park remains the A-Bomb dome (photo), one of the few buildings that wasn’t totally destroyed and today it stands there as it did after the explosion as a powerful reminder of what happened on that day. We spent a long time in the museum and walked through the park afterwards. We walked in almost total silence, both finding it had to talk after seeing what we had. We ended the evening with philosophical discussion about the ethical questions raised about killing so many people to bring an end to the war, though it is well documented that it could have been stopped without the bombs as Japan had agreed to surrender, they just couldn’t agree on the position of their tenno (emperor).

So today we have visited a mixture of sights. As we rode around the city we could see evidence of little things that had survived the blast, even a tree 1.5km from the hypocentre that had been badly scorched yet was now still growing strongly. We visited a contemporary art museum, one of the worst museums I have ever visited. I tend to struggle a bit with modern art, though even by the end of the one Christine said “I can’t find anything good about this place, it is terrible”. It was all the work of a single artist, or at least that is what he called himself. I reached a work entitled “Oneness in paper (No.323)”. It was a large piece of paper with a large whole torn out of the middle, then that piece had been torn up and placed back sort of randomly. It wasn’t even framed, it wasn’t worth the money or effort to be honest. If I had seen that on its own I probably would have stood there and scratched my head for a while, but after I had just walked past the other 322 of the things it was wearing a little thin. By about No. 350 he had advanced to the use of a 3rd colour, the guy was a nutter. He then advanced to 5,000 works entitled “Point”, though I certainly couldn’t see the point! Then one Christmas some plonker gave him a roll of tape! Now there were 5,000 works called “Tape” and guess what, they were pieces of paper torn in half and taped back together, though for some strange reason he forgot to throw them away at the end of it. Actually I have just had a thought….the guy isn’t a nutter at all, he is a genius. As we cycle around we have a constant problem of finding a rubbish bin, there are none anywhere. He has obviously got around the problem by hanging up his litter on the walls of an art museum…what a guy! I don’t usually fill in questionnaires, but I did about the museum. The place was massive and employed a lot of staff, yet other than us nobody was there. I asked them if they could work out why? Another art museum was vastly better, it even had Dali’s floppy clocks in there. We ended the day in sombre mood again having visited a memorial to the victims of the bombing.

But Hiroshima has shown what a great spirit the people here have. From the ashes has grown a big city that is still coming to terms with what happened on that day at 8:15am. But as we ride around it now looks like any other Japanese city, yet at the time of the blast it was said that nothing would grow there for 75 years. The city has made a big impression on me, it is something I will never forget.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Day 723 - Matasuyama, Shikoku island

Well, I was after a cultural change by coming to Japan, but how on earth am I going to manage to put that all into writing in the short space of time I have here?

We enjoyed our all too short stay in Osaka, in fact we tried to stay another night, but we had arrived in Japan in the middle of Golden Week, their main holiday period and everywhere was fully booked, even the hostel we had been staying in could only take us for the two nights we had already been there, so we had to move on. Golden Week had its advantages though, one being that it made it very quiet on the roads on the Monday morning that we set out. We were armed with the best English written maps of Japan that we could find, but even that was going to be way insufficient for find our way out of a big city like Osaka, so we decided to head in a general direction by following the compass until we reach route 310. It worked very well most of the time, we were on tiny little streets through quiet suburbs to the extent that I was amazed at how far we went without even seeing a main road let alone the 310. I kept a close eye on the compass and at one point we were on the biggest road we could find as I watched the needle swing around until we were heading back the way we came, then carried on swinging around until we had completed a full circle. On the second lap we took the first turning that looked of any reasonable size and before long I was amazed to find ourselves staring at a signpost that directed us to the 310. We were then heading out on the main road to Kawachinagano, it was very narrow and reasonably busy, though traffic stuck behind us was very patient and always gave us plenty of room. So far here in Japan the drivers have been courteous the whole time, aggressive or inpatient driving just doesn’t seem to be a part of daily life here, vehicles always wait and then give you plenty of room when you pass making even the busiest of roads bearable. We arrived in Kawachinagano to Christine’s comment of “We can’t be there already! I read on a website that it was pleasantly rural, we haven’t left the suburbs of Osaka yet”. She was already getting worried about the possibilities of finding a campsite despite the fact that we had at least another 3 hours of cycling ahead of us. We could already see the hills we had to cross to reach the next town of Hashimoto, so before long we were climbing through woodland and passing through a series of 3 tunnels. Tunnels are another daily feature of cycling in Japan. In truth they are not that bad and with Japanese drivers they are about as safe as tunnels could ever be, though I never feel entirely happy in them. They always give the length of the tunnel at the entrance, a nice gesture that lets you work out how much longer you have left to live! We passed through Hashimoto and started looking for the mountain road to Koyasan. We struggled to find the right road so stopped to have a check of the map and were immediately joined by a local cyclist who introduced himself to us as Roy from San Francisco who had been living here with his Japanese wife for the last 16 years. Before long we were being invited back to his house for the night which was only a little off route. Back at his large house we were introduced to his wife Kaz, their 2 sons and their dog. This was better than we could have ever hoped for to be staying in a nice Japanese house on our very first night on the road. Roy and Kaz were wonderful hosts, we had a lovely sociable evening and a great dinner. We were treated to a lovely hot bath, though bathing etiquette here is very different to what we are normally used to. Most houses have a large bath with hot water that remains in the bath for the whole evening so that everybody can use it, so before you get into the bath you have sit down beside and thoroughly scrub yourself down, then shower yourself off and only when you are totally clean can you get in the bath. In reality a bath is just a place to relax, and sooth your aching limbs. They also had a very unusual loo here. It’s all high tech stuff , the loo has two sort of arms making it look a little like an arm chair and on one arm is a control panel that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an aircraft cockpit and controlled the bidet along with the heated seat. When the loo was flushed water came out of a tap on top of the cistern into a small ’sink’ that was built into the cistern lid, the down through the plughole into the cistern itself. It was a clever water saving device with the idea that you wash you hand in the water before it makes it’s way to the cistern, very clever….if you are bright enough to be able to work out what the hell it is for without having to ask! Later in the evening we were talking about Japanese food and the problem we have in the supermarkets, not only with the writing, but also the products that we have not seen before and have no idea what they are. Kaz then offered to take us to the local supermarket and show us around which turned out to be a God send as we learnt so much and she gave us some great ideas for cooking on our little camp stove. It is safe to say that Japan is not the cheapest place in the world, some things are outrageously expensive, but if you buy wisely it can easily be affordable. For example, if you want to eat the same foods as you have back home then you will need to come here with a big fat wallet crammed full of Yen as the likes of a single melon or a jar of honey will be costing you in the region of £20, but buy local products such as noodles, seaweed or a massive selection of fish and it can be very cheap, though surprisingly rice here is pretty expensive compared with back home. It rained a fare bit during the night, we were thankful not to be camping after all.

The following morning was still very overcast as Roy filled us with breakfast before joining us for the first 10km to the start of the long climb to Koyasan. We said our farewells before settling in to the 18km climb, though it wasn’t long before the drizzle started which was all too quickly was resembling rain, so the higher we went the wetter it got as the clouds closed in us making for a very miserable day. To make matters worse the narrow twisting mountain road was very busy, we were getting colder and colder. At last we reached the top and soon after arrived in Koyasan. The first thing we did was to park up behind the public loos and change out of our wet clothes. The public loos here are fantastic, always very clean, decent enough to be in a hotel, usually with heated loo seats, but never with anything to dry your hands with. Once dry we tried to warm ourselves up by making some soup on the stove, before doing a little bit of sightseeing whilst trying to combine it with finding a campsite. The campsite bit wasn’t really working and it was still raining so we went to one of the temples to see if we would be able to camp there. Christine pulled out a piece of paper with the request written in Japanese and a minute later the monk was giving us a map and putting a little circle on it for us. We started to head out of town to where he had marked the map expecting to find an official campsite, though the tourist office had already told us that if we wanted to camp here we had to book at least one month ahead, but when we arrived we were amazed to find a rough piece of ground that would be suitable, how on earth would a monk have know about this place? In the end we climbed a hill on the track beside it and camped amongst the trees in a lovely little spot and by the time we had got there it had even stopped raining.

It rained on and off during the night and was still raining when we set off in the morning, though we were only going back to town as Koyasan is a major tourist attraction and religious site with about 100 temples in a very small town. We decided to visit the large cemetery first, a massive place at the edge of the hillside with tombs that were hundreds of years old. The newer part of the cemetery had corporate memorials for the major companies such as Nissan, Panasonic and the space agency complete with rocket. Some of there had little ‘letterboxes’ for people to leave their cards for their departed colleagues. I can’t imagine Cap Gemini ever having a memorial of any description, they are only too pleased to get rid of you, the last thing they would ever want to do is remember you! At the end of the cemetery was the hall of lanterns containing over 10,000 lanterns, one of which has been said to be burning for over 1,000 years, though being modern day Japan most of them seemed to be electric. Heading back we followed people heading for a shrine like building only to find free tea on offer kept hot in large vats. We made the most of it as we sat out of the rain. There was a line of about 7 or 8 Buddha images that people doused in water. We discovered that they did this in memory of their recently departed, so I did the same in memory of those people that I knew who have died since I have been on this trip. It was still raining as we once again cycled back to the town centre, to make matters worse it was cold too. We visited the other temples and were delighted to find that the entry fee for one included free tea and a biscuit taken on tatami mats in a large open room. By the end of the day it had stopped raining, but we decided to head back to where we had camped the previous evening rather than heading out for 20km or so. By the time we were having our second course of dinner it was raining again and it kept raining the whole night.
By 2am we were camped in the middle of a completely waterlogged area with water seeping in through the ground sheet, but as we were aiming for a 5am departure we stayed put. By 5am it was still raining hard, we stayed put longer. By 10am it had eased somewhat, but the tent was soaked as were the sleeping mats and our clothes from yesterday were still soaking and in a bag. To make matter worse by the time we left it was raining again, the dry clothes we were wearing would soon be added to the wet list. We stopped once again in town to have a bite to eat and sat with a Japanese cyclist which enable Christine to practice some of her Japanese, she did really well, whilst I sat there not understanding more than the occasional word. She had been on an intensive 8 day course before this trip in an attempt to add to the 5 languages she is already fluent in. There was nothing else for it but to head down the mountain in the rain, so with full wet weather gear we were heading off. We had to retrace the first 10km but we were amazed to find the road all but deserted, this being the first day after end of the Golden Week. By the time we reached the bottom the rain had been reduced to showers and it was at least warmer. It wasn’t long before we were changing into our wet clothes in order to dry them as we rode along, we even saw patch of blue sky for the first time since we have been in Japan. We made our way into Wakayama but decided we would miss the ferry to the island of Shikoku, so went to the supermarket to restock. A trip around was a little easier thanks to advice from Kaz, but it still a very slow process as we work out what to cook that is at least a little affordable and nourishing. They are not the greatest bread eaters here, though they do have sliced bread, sliced bread like you have never seen before. For some reason they are always half loaves without crust and come in a choice of either 4, 5 o 6 slices. We tried the 4 slice loaf with a single slice so thick that it is almost impossible to open you mouth wide enough to get it in. We made our way back to a playing field we had passed. As we cross the field it was completely waterlogged from the recent rains, but we were able to tuck ourselves away in the trees and Christine was able to put her new found knowledge of Japanese food to the test and produced another wonderful 3 course dinner. We were amazed to not have any rain at all during the night.

We were also amazed to find that it was starting to rain just as we were setting off the following morning, this wasn’t the time to get another soaking as we headed for a 2 hour ferry crossing. Finding the ferry terminal was pretty easy, though if we hadn’t been able to cross the last possible bridge we had been heading for we would have missed it. Buying the tickets was pretty straight forward, it was obvious what we wanted and we even looked a bit like cyclists, even I could get the gist of the notices just by being able to see the numbers for times and prices. The ferry crossing was great, the deck had very little seating, instead it was a large open area with tatami mats on so you could just take of your shoes and sit or lie down anywhere. We made the most of it by having our second breakfast. Once off the ferry we looked for another supermarket, but what we found was a general type warehouse store, nothing was priced. We kept taking things to the counter and asking ‘Ikura des ka?’, how much is this. They kept writing down 105 Yen, they must have thought we were really thick as everything in the whole store was 105 Yen, but we left happy with a few bargains such as batteries and chopsticks (No, no. Japan is all hi-tech, but the batteries weren’t for the chopsticks!) We headed out of town on the busy road but were soon on much smaller road and passing through villages. Actually, Japan is surprisingly lo-tech at times. Despite being the world leaders in anything electronic down to the multi-function electric loos, we passed two people painting lines on the road using masking tape and spreading the thick yellow paint with hand tools. The contrast continued as you see people working hard in the fields using manual labour, it is all very surprising. We were beginning to find the limitations of the maps we have. It all looked such a simple route to follow, but on the ground it was very different. On the map there were just a few roads with just the main roads being numbered, but once there, there are roads everywhere, the roads we want are usually numbered but we have no idea what number they are supposed to be. We also pass through lots of little towns and villages on roads that appear deserted on the map. So far we haven’t been lost, but I think that is more by luck than judgement. But at least it was now rural, we were passing paddy fields complete with houses in the middle and what’s more the sun was out for the very first time, we were really enjoying the cycling and the environment. After another little bit of main road it was soon time to find somewhere to camp for the night, challenging when all around you is a river and steep hillsides. We headed of down a little side road and soon found some nice little paddy fields, some of them were not being used so we decided where we would like to camp and then went of to the people working in the fields nearby to try and get permission. We did get permission in the end but not until we had long discussion with the ever increasing number of people coming to see what was going on, a telephone call, an offer to sleep in an old garage and finally me taking a photo of our desired location as they couldn’t work out where we were pointing to. So that was where we set up camp, rice fields all around us, above and below, but it had the advantage of having running water, but all the water came at a price….frogs. They make so much noise during the night, all talking or rather shouting at each other during the night. At times there was silence, then one would start and they would all join in, rather like dogs in the UK.

We set off the following morning with a clear blue sky, it was even hot for the first time since we have been in Japan. We made our way to the coastal town of Hiwasa, home of a temple. There is a pilgrimage of 88 temples here on Shikoku and this was on the route and well worth a visit (photo). For the rest of our time here we have regularly seen the pilgrims, known as Henro (photo), walking and cycling along the 1,300km route around the island, though most turn up in cars and coaches, though it makes for a very atmospheric time as they go through their chants at the temples. A little later we came across another temple with tunnels lined on both sides with Buddha images, leading down to the place of worship. Once again we were camped near paddy fields, this time even with a sea view. Little animals rummaged through our rubbish at night, though I never did see what they were.

The following morning we once again set off in beautiful sunshine heading down to the cape on a very quiet main road (photo). It is hard to believe there are 126 million people here as at times the roads are deserted, yet in New Zealand with just 4 million people the roads were always busy. We turned the Cape and started heading north on the west coast. This was the start of a complete change. Despite the map showing the whole route as being deserted there was urban sprawl and industrial buildings the whole way, not very nice. It was so built up that we really struggled to find a place to camp, but after a really hard search we found a very quiet little spot, apart from the frogs, wedges between a road embankment and a paddy field, though only one car passed the whole time that we were there.

Another day of heavy traffic followed, though we did find a great cycle path on a disused railway line which was also on the route for the pilgrims we passed and we photographed more Henro. Christine was once again showing off her skills at locating fruit trees, this time she presented me with fruit that looked a bit like an apricot but neither of us had ever seen before. In wasn’t until we had seen them for sale that we really started to tuck into them in earnest. I think they are locally called Biwa. We were heading into the city of Kochi, where we had lunch in a park beside the castle. All the benches were full of locals eating lunch, but at 1pm the place suddenly emptied as everybody returned to work. I used a drinking fountain nearby, more of a tap pointing vertically up really. I turned it on gently and drank the nice cool water. When I turned it on full and stood back the jet reached 10ft in the air, blimey, the thing would have taken your head off! We did another supermarket run and topped up our supplies. We are getting better at knowing what things are, but it still takes a long time in the supermarket and I still have the ability to stand and look at a whole rack of stuff and have absolutely no idea what in earth it is. But one thing I am learning about food here is that if it looks as though it is something savoury, then it will probably be fish or at least taste of fish, whereas if it looks as though it is sweet, then it will almost certainly be Soya beans that are just disguised in 5,000 different ways. Heading out of the city was once again very busy, but eventually we were turning onto a little road and had the place to ourselves. We had to change our camping style for the night, rice paddies were out, grapefruit orchards were in, though the disused one we were in did give us a little more free food.

The following day provided us with our best cycling day for a long time. We kept off the main route from Kochi to Matsuyama instead heading for a slightly longer route, though still on main roads. Well, at least they looked like main roads on the map, on the ground they were just single track roads with hardly anybody using them. We even passed through villages that seemed to be totally deserted. It was another hot day, added to that we had a long climb beside a river, so when we found access to the river on the way down we stripped off and went for a dip, but by heck it was cold, we didn’t stay in long, but it did make me feel much cooler for the next hour or so. We checked out another temple on the pilgrimage, this time a climb up through the trees on a path well away from the road. Once again the chanting was a delight, we sat down and enjoyed it. We pushed on a little further before finding a little shrine near the road complete with a picnic table, so we made the most of it and camped there. The picnic table was Japanese size, very low, not even I could sit with my legs underneath it properly.

It rained all night, a bit of a surprise as there had been clear blue skies when we had stopped. Christine leapt up suddenly when she head a noise of something close by that might have been going for the rubbish again, but it just turned out to be a large crab trying to get into the tent, a bit of a surprise being so far from the sea and 500m above sea level. Despite a night of rain it hadn’t been of Koyasan proportions, we were totally dry and by the time we set off it had stopped raining. First stop was another temple, second stop was the supermarket. We have been eating miso soup and rice for breakfast, but it just isn’t enough, we both feel hungry and lacking energy an hour later. So we bought food and sat at some benches just beyond the checkout and ate Swiss rolls, one each. As we ate an old lady camp up to us and asked “Are you hungry?” I assumed she was taking the piss and just replied with words to the effect that cyclists are always hungry. A minute later she came back to us and gave us a bag full of sushi and chicken pieces, a really nice gesture. Once she left a younger woman turned up and had a quick chat telling us that she is a Jehovas Witness. She kept bowing the whole time, she bowed so low that I was just waiting for her to topple over and end up in a heap at our feet. We were now back on the main route 33 to Matsuyama, starting with a climb to a pass at 720m, then a great 12km descent with hazy views over the city and the road doing a complete loop and going underneath itself. We easily found our way into town and made for the tourist office where they were unbelievably helpful to the extent that they found us a very cheap room in a hostel, gave s free internet access and even free tea and biscuits while we used it. We assumed at that price the hostel would be a dive, far from it. I was amazed to find that for the price we were right in the city centre down a quiet street and had an apartment style place complete with kitchen and washing machine. The woman running is so friendly too. She arranged for somebody to meet us who spoke English and Christine once again decided a supermarket trip would be the best place to fire off a load of questions. When she heard that Christine liked cooking she suggested she cooked some German food for a group of people who would provide some Japanese food in exchange. So that’s exactly what we did, though finding the ingredients for European food in Japan is rather challenging. We had an evening with a rather annoying American, a Dutch woman and a group of Japanese people. We learnt a bit more about Japanese Buddhism. We have seen so many Buddha images all in rows, many having babies bibs on, or at least that is what it looked like to us. In fact that is exactly what they are, they are put on for a deceased person in the hope that they will be reborn again soon. Just up the road is the district of Dogo, home of the first Japanese Spa, where we will be heading off to shortly. We had a look last night, it’s a lovely large old building surrounded by modern buildings, but I was fascinated to see so many people wandering around in their bath gear, the men carrying little baskets and not looking very macho at all. A bus full of people turned up all wearing the same bath gear, now you wouldn’t see that back home.

So Japan remains a very interesting place to travel around and feels unbelievably safe. Everybody is so courteous and friendly. I don’t even worry about the bike too much, I get the impression crime and anti-social behaviour is very low here. For example, there are vending machines everywhere, even outside a house in the middle of nowhere, but you never see a single one damaged through vandalism. The same goes with the endless mirrors that are on so many of the bends on the roads, they are always spotlessly clean and I have still yet to see one that is broken.

Ok, a bit about the language, though I have to say that everything I have learnt has come through Christine who is very good with languages. Firstly, to speak it seems to be the easy bit, there are quite a few words that originate from English, for example, tentu. The writing is where it really starts to get difficult and confusing. Right, firstly there is the kanji, this is the complicated symbols that I am sure you would recognise. There is one kanji for each word and apparently you need to know about 1,000 kanji to be able to read a newspaper though there are somewhere in the region of 23,000 kanji. Next comes hiragana. This is made up of syllables and there are about 54 of them. These can obviously be grouped together to form words, but one word might have a number of different meaning as apposed to kanji where is can only mean one thing. Hiragana is only used to make up word that originates from Japan. Next comes katakana. This is similar to hiragana in so much that it is syllable based, but this time it can only be used for words that originate from overseas. Lastly there is the roman lettering equivalent. To make matters worse written text can be made up of kanji, hiragana and katakana and be written either across the page or down the page depending on how much space you have to write. To make matters even worse words are constructed by alternate vowels and constanents, you can never have two together unless one of them is an n, and all words end with a vowel or an n. To make thing even worse still the Japanese use the qwerty keyboard on computers that converts it into kanji as you type, so if you type a word with more than one meaning you have to stop and select the correct kanji. It is safe to say that by the time I leave Japan I wont be speaking Japanese fluently!

Finally, as I don’t seem to have much to write about I will include another little exert from Christine’s blog. It’s all about her favourite subject: food.

Eating in Japan

Cooking in Japan is a real adventure and going to the supermarket is usually the highlight of the day for me although it takes me about 1 hour to buy stuff for dinner. When we visited our first supermarket we did not have a clue what to do with about 80% of the stuff there. Now we are down to 30%, but it is still very exotic. And on top of all that we try to buy cheaply. We had some very big surprises about what is cheap and what is expensive. Let’s start with the cheap stuff:
Tofu is ridiculously cheap - a 300 gr slab comes for 25 to 50 cents, about 10% of what it would cost me in Germany. The same goes for bean sprouts, Pak Choy, spring onions, most fish and strangely enough for chicken. My favourite so far is squid. Squid for 2 people sells for about 1 to 2 EUR and is absolutely delicious. Instead of gooey rubber band you get squid that melts in your mouth.

But there is also a lot of expensive stuff: Rice is double the price it is in Europe! And it is the most common food here, but due to import restrictions and/or customer preference they only sell expensive Japanese rice that always seems to end up as a soggy, slimy mess when we cook it. Potatoes and apples are so expensive that they are sold per piece (1 potatoe = 30 cents) and we have seen watermelons for 15 EUR per piece!

But there is also free food: To my big surprise and despite the fact that it is still only spring the fruit trees have been quite rewarding so far. We found a lot of orange and grapefruit trees plus a fruit called Biwa. I have never ever seen it before. It looks like an apricot but has a smooth skin that you have to peel before eating plus 4 bean like stones in eat. A lot of effort to eat them, but they are delicious.

Cooking is quite a challenge here especially because we want to keep expenses down. Dinner is experiment time and we are back to 3 course dinners. Lunch is usually some tempura fish or vegetable from a supermarket and when we are lucky we get discounted sushi (a huge sushi platter for the price of 1 piece of sushi in Germany). But breakfast and snacks are still a problem. We tried Japanese breakfast, e.g. miso soup with tofu plus cold rice with seaweed, but we were both hungry again 1 hour after finishing breakfast. We changed to eating bread (which unfortunately comes presliced: 1 loaf of bread comes in 4 slices only, which means that you have to have a very wide mouth if you want to eat a sandwich) and jam, but this is bulky and not very healthy on the long run. And snacks pose an unsolvable problem. Chocolate comes in 50 gr bars and is outrageously expensive - the same goes for biscuits and chips or crackers. Tiny packages with half of the weight consisting of more packaging material at an outrageous price. Not good for cyclists, but good to help John loose some of the weight he has gained while cycling with me and 3 course dinners every night.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Day 711 - Osaka (Japan)

Wow! What a difference a couple of days make. I was after a cultural change before I hit the USA, Fiji I been my intended destination, but as Christine was heading for Japan it seemed too good an opportunity to miss…so here I am.
We had separate flights as Christine is on an around the world ticket with Air New Zealand and I would save over 300 pounds by going via Gold Coast in Australia with Jetstar, so I departed the day before her. I had boxed the bike up for the first time ever, what a hassle, I hope it is the last time. It made checking in so easy though and before long I was checking in to the Youth Hostel at Gold Coast where I was told I had a room to myself. About an hour later I was told I would be having company and my new room mate duly arrived. “You sound Australian, where have you come from today then?” I asked him “I am an Aussie and today I left the BCC”, “BCC, what’s that?” I asked, “Oh it’s Brisbane Correctional Centre. I left there this morning, spent the afternoon in court and have just been released after 2 months in Prison. I was shit scared the whole time, I was in there with notorious criminals”. Oh great! He seemed harmless enough though, only a lad at 17. “So what have you been up to?” I asked, “Just a bit of this and that, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Later I asked him again and he gave me more information “A mate of mine got into a fight, he only hit the other guy twice but he died, I was put away for being present and not stopping the fight”. He talked non stop, I guess I would if I was on my first night of freedom.

I checked in the following morning looking forward to another swift process, but it just didn’t happen. Once again there had been a big queue behind me but I was the last away by some considerable time. “Where is your visa? You need a visa for Japan unless you have a return ticket?” I was told. “I don’t need one I am British”. They went off and checked and came back and told me I did need one, and sent me to another guy who would sort me out. I told him the same but he just said “Everybody needs a visa”. “No they don’t and entry on a British passport doesn’t” I informed him. “I will just check online for you. Here we are, UK….a visa is required for stays longer than 6 months”, “There you go, that’s great then” I replied “I will only be there 2 or 3 months”, but his only answer was “It must be a mistake. Australians need one so the British must do, they are the same. You are not getting on this flight unless you have an onward ticket. You need to get one using the internet”. Great, I had just over an hour to departure and I had to sort out a ticket. In the end I got a very expensive return flight to Gold Coast on the basis it was fully refundable. I think the problem is that they get fined if people don’t have a visa or an onward ticket, but their passengers are generally Japanese or Aussies and it’s different for the British and many Europeans, we don’t need a visa, we get 90 days on arrival. So now I have more hassle to try and get a full refund and I have only just completed sorting out an Air New Zealand refund a couple of days ago.

And so to Japan and an impressive arrival at Kansai Airport that sits on an island a little bigger than the runway some 50km from Osaka. Everybody seems to be a bit twitchy on Swine Flu, I had to fill in a form. The quarantine queue went down very quickly until I arrived at the front, though I was soon sent elsewhere as I hadn’t put a telephone number down. The rather large but friendly custom official told me to put the name and address of the hotel I was staying at. I wrote YHA Osaka “Oooor, what is the address?”, “I don’t know”, “Ooooor…what is the telephone number?”, “Sorry, don’t know that either”, “Ahhhh, can you check in you guide book then please”, “Sorry, I can’t, I haven’t got a guide book”, HOOOOooooooor, no guide book ha ha ha ha! You can put down your telephone number”, “Nope, I haven‘t got one of those either“. Eventually he gave in and seemed to make up some sort of number himself. I was quickly out, and there standing waiting at the exit was Christine who had arrived an hour earlier and had already worked out how to get off the island as you can’t cycle off, so we were soon heading for a train where the friendly guards helped us to the lift. We were whisked along to Nagoromo station where we got off, found a nice quiet spot and set the bikes up. One problem with bike boxes is getting rid of them, and here there was nowhere to dispose of them, so I just took off the flight tags so that we couldn’t be traced, then we where heading down the road to the Youth Hostel. Oh, and that reminds me. Did I forget to tell you that Christine and I are now married. The Youth Hostel wouldn’t let anybody share a room who weren’t married, so on the train over we quickly made arrangements and we got married in Berlin. Soon we were checked in and off to the supermarket before it closed at 23:00. Once back in the room the phone rang “Hello, this is reception. The train station are on the line and have 2 of your bike boxes, do you want them to keep them for you?” I could hardly believe it, how had they traced us so quickly? “No, no, they are rubbish” I replied “OK, thank you, that is no problem”.

Today we caught a train into the city centre, there were a few things we needed before we set off from Osaka. First of all we needed maps, a road atlas in Japanese and English had been recommended, so after finding out where the book shop was from the info centre we were soon being told they were out of stock, though they sent us to another bookshop and we were relieved to find it. We wandered through the backstreet for the next item, a plug adaptor. Going through the backstreets was just amazing. Whilst Australia and New Zealand were both nice, wandering around the cities wasn’t that great, they were very western. Here it is totally different, to wander through the streets and see everyday life is a fantastic attraction in its own right. The shops that sold items for cooking and serving food were just amazing, there was even a shop that sold nothing but chopsticks, all of them beautiful. We just ambled along, it was brilliant. We arrived at the street that was full of shops selling electrical items, there were dozens of them, and to enter any of them was an assault on the ear drums as music blared out and hawkers shouted out trying to sell their goods. None of them had the adaptor we wanted though. In a city that sold every conceivable electrical item, all made in there own hi-tec country, you can’t get an adaptor! “Try Big Camera, it’s the biggest electrical shop around”, blimey, the one we were in was big enough. He was right though, Big Camera was BIG. Each floor was massive and adaptors were stored on the 5th. They still didn’t have what we wanted but they suggested linking 2 together to do the job. We left happy. We passed gambling halls with more loud music and flashing lights. We went in one, the main machine game was Pachinko, but I just don’t understand it. Ball bearings seemed to pass through a pin-ball like machine and drop out into a tray, then the player scooped out the seeming endless supply and filled large plastic trays which once filled would be stacked up beside them. I have no idea what that was all about. We picked up a gas canister a little more easily, then we were free to do a bit of sightseeing, so we made our way to the castle (photo), apparently the most visited sight on the whole of Japan. On the way we stopped off a a martial art display, then as we arrived we could hear drums beating. Just outside the entrance to the main building there were teams of drummers giving performances (photo). It was completely mesmerising, they did all sort of things, in fact I never realised there were so many way that you could thump a drum with a large stick! The timing was to perfection, a joy to watch, in fact such a joy we just sat there and watched them and never actually made into the castle. We made our way out via a different route and in one of the wide walkways there were rock bands playing, but strangely enough the were all right next to each other so that it all blended into one…what a row! The whole area was full of women, there was hardly a man in sight. Some of the women were really dolled up, to me they looked totally ridiculous, but to them it is fashionable. One of the favourite stiles are shorts or short skirt and long sock way over the knee. Lots of people here wear face masks, I guess that is to save themselves from the pollution, not that it seems that bad, but we saw one guy wearing one pulled down so that he could smoke a cigarette. Doesn’t that rather defeat the object? We made our way home and once again checked out the supermarket. You can never be quite sure what you are buying with everything in Japanese, but the sushi is very cheap and even cheaper when marked at half price in the evening. We have only been here a day, but it has been a great introduction to an intriguing country.

Well I have to say that I am very pleased to be here, I haven’t felt like this when entering a country for a very long time. The people her have all been very friendly despite their lack of English and our lack of Japanese, though Christine has learnt some and is doing very well. They go out of their way to help, always smiling and bowing. There are going to be many sights to see on the way and many strange customs to learn about. Hopefully we are going to be a great journey.