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.