Sunday, 28 June 2009

Day 766 - Aizuwakamatsu

With a checkout time of 11am from Takayama it was almost inevitable that we would have a late start…I was right. I was a hot day, not the best day for climbing, especially crossing the Japanese Alps. After just a few kilometres on the flat we were climbing, something we were to do for pretty much the rest of the day. We stopped for a rest in the shade of a bus shelter, well, more of a garden house than a bus shelter, complete with cushions on the seats. We were the back into the climb, a slow sweaty climb. We had to take the low road, the Sky Road was still closed despite it being the end on June. It proved a good excuse not to take it, it rose up to 2,700m. Soon after we reached a pass which ended with a long tunnel, some 2.5km of it, oh joy! After a short plummet to the spa town of Hirayu that had that a sulphur smell that reminded us of Rotorua, we were climbing again to the main Abo Pass. With most of the already light traffic heading off through another tunnel that we couldn’t use, and the steep road sides making camp sites few and far between we took the first we could find, in fact one of the very few bits of level ground, though a bit close to the road, but nobody seemed to notice us there. It didn’t take us long to realise that we were being bugged, flies, dozens of them, but unusually lots of different varieties. After dinner we couldn’t take the biting insects any more so we retreated into the shelter of the tent well before dark. After a little while we heard footsteps cutting through the bush towards us, they got louder and louder, ‘Great’ I thought, ‘That’s just what we need, somebody to move us on’. We sat there peering out of the tent waiting for the person to arrive, but it was odd that they weren’t coming down the obvious path, nor had we heard a vehicle stop. When they were just 5m from the tent they revealed themselves, “HOLY SHIT” exclaimed Christine, I was just totally gob smacked. I think my response was something like “That’s a bloody black bear!”, I didn’t even realise there were bears in Japan. Thankfully it was far more frightened of us, because as soon as it saw us it turned and went running off into the forest, though Christine was convinced that is had just gone off to bring all it’s family back to meet us.

The following morning we thought we just had about another 200m of climbing to the pass, we were wrong, it was another 400m, though dense forest to Abo Pass at 1731m. After a short stop at the top to have a look at the snow capped mountains we were heading down through a series of switch backs. Any spot where a car could be parked was filled, it was the weekend and this was prime walking country. The traffic rejoined us at the other end of the tunnel, the descent continued by the river and through a series of 18 tunnels in about 30km, some of them over a kilometre long. They were hardly fun either, the traffic was increasing, the tunnels old which meant they were narrow, poorly lit and had a rough old surface. We stopped after the first group to let Christine’s nerves settle down, she keep asking me “Does nothing ever bother you?” To make matters worse for her she was not feeling well, though she battled through well and refused to stop once we had reached Matsumoto. The castle there (photo) was one of the nicest we have seen in Japan, though I sat outside whilst Christine went for a look inside. As I sat on a bench a group of girls wearing the shortest skirts I have ever seen walked past. Everybody in Japan bows a lot, it replaces waving or handshaking etc. Well, when these girls bowed the skirt didn’t really cover anything, nothing was left to the imagination…..not that I was looking of course! We thought heading out of the biggish city we would struggle to find somewhere to camp, but we rode beside the river and it wasn’t long before we found a quiet spot. As we looked around for the best spot to put the tent we came face to face with a large snake. As Christine yelped I was convinced that she would want to move on, but she surprised me again, we were soon setting up camp just a few metres away. Whilst in Australia I was told no end of times to be careful of the snakes, I was even told never to camp in the outback because of them, yet I never saw a single one. We have seen about 5 or 6 here, generally about 1-1.5m long and nobody has even been concerned about them, though it may be the fact that a bite from them wont kill you as much here as in Australia. So all was going well, I was happily stirring the contents of the pot on the stove when all of a sudden there was a loud bang, a flash of flames and all the grass around the stove was on fire. Once we had put the flames out we realised the cause of the problem, I guess I had somehow knocked the lighter under the stove as it was the lighter that had exploded. Christine always manages to find the right thing to say at the right time, in this case she asked “Why did your leave it there?” We had a wet night, but thankfully we had good drainage.

By morning it was still raining, the river had risen 6 inches from last night and by the time we left in the rain it had risen another 6 inches. We were using our new jackets for the first time, they worked well. Dare I say it, it almost made riding in the rain enjoyable. Hmmm, nah, may be not that good. Well we had visited the hi-tech world of Toyota, today we were heading for the opposite end of the spectrum, the low-tech wasabi farm (radishes). It was all very interesting, they need a lot, a lot, A LOT of water. The irrigation was amazing. They grew in stony ground with constant water running around them. Overhead they were covered to protect them from the sun. As we looked down the small valley with all the covering it reminded me of a glacier. Back at the shop you could buy anything so long it had radish in it. Having tried radish ice-cream we declined on buying the radish white chocolate. The ice-cream was ok, though not enough radish in there for my liking. You can’t have too much radish in your ice-cream in my opinion! Amazingly by the time we left the sun was out, the roads were drying and it was hard to believe that it had been raining for the last 12 hours. We rode along route 19, a nice road that followed the river the whole way, very easy going.

The following morning we carried on along route 19 to Nagano, a nice entry to a city with the mountains behind and our road elevated enough to let us look across the rooftops along the plain. By the time we had reached the centre it was raining again, it would rain on and off for the rest of the day. We visited the important temple of Zenko-ji, where there were more Buddha images that had healing properties, no need for a doctor in Japan. As with every important tourist site the street leading to it is full of tourist shops selling tourist tat and boxes of food, anything you like so long as it is pickled or contains soya beans. As it was raining we took a look around. One such shop had lots of sample pots, so we thought we might as well stop there for lunch, though we left just before we thought we might get thrown out. Next stop was Obuse, described in the guide book as one of the most attractive villages in Japan. It’s my job to do the navigating and as we approached the place I fell asleep and missed a sign. I realised by the next junction, no more than 100m further on, so I waited for Christine. She arrived with fire in her eyes “Why don’t you just follow the signs” she shouted at me. In the 6 weeks we have been here it’s only the 2nd navigation mistake, but I am riding with an efficient German who clearly has set very high standards. I might as well have missed all the signs for it as neither of us could see anything special in the place anyway, it was just another village. We were in a large valley, and large valleys are normally full of rice fields and people. As we passed a group of school kids I called out “Konichi wa” (Hello) and in unison they all called back “Konichi waaaaaaaa…….” it was so drawn out that it sounded musical, like a choir singing, wonderful. We managed to find a campsite in a small wood as we headed up a steep hill. Just as we started to eat dinner it started to rain, we retreated to the shelter of the tent. By heck did it rain, for the next 5 hours it was torrential. The sound of rain on the tent was deafening. Christine was convinced the drainage would be poor and we would soon be flooded out “What are we going to do?” she asked, “Sit it out” I replied “Unless you fancy going for a little walk to find another site”, she is a little worrier.

Thankfully the drainage was good, the tent held out well and we didn’t get wet, though the pot I had left outside rather than washing it up last night was completely full of water, there had been a serious amount of rainfall. We were soon back at the river we had been riding along yesterday, though it was hardly recognisable, this morning it was an angry, brown torrent of water, not a gravel bank in sight. We stopped to fill up with petrol for the stove. The petrol pump was the most hi-tech I have even seen, touch screens and displays all over the place, with slots for coins and notes alike. It was self service and the thing even talked to us. We weren’t bright enough to get anything out of it, so the attendant came over to help us. They clearing aren’t used to such small amounts of fuel, one quick blast and it was overflowing onto the forecourt, though any apology comes with a big sack full of complimentary bowing. We cycled along the river before climbing to Nowazaonsen, a spa town with 13 free onsen. We checked out 4 of them, they were all empty, though having just dipped a foot in we too left as they were way too hot. We found one that was much cooler and had our free scrub down, though I found it hard relax in a small pool with the remains of a dead bird drifting around in about 50 pieces. I hadn’t seen it until I got in, then the thing seemed to be chasing me about. I took the hint and left. We had lunch with our feet in a foot spa before continuing back down to and along the river, though the road that had been so flat in the morning rolled along nicely.

A hot day followed. We rode into Tokamachi, a town that is surrounded by art. We went to the tourist office to try and find a map to locate some of it. The directed us to another office where we would be able to buy a map, then the guy said he would take us and a minute later we were following him on his bike through the streets. Now that would never happen in Europe. The Japanese are wonderful people, not the most outgoing to foreigners, but ask somebody a question and there seems to be no end to the effort they are willing to put in to get the answer for you. The guy even took Christine up to the 4th floor office. On the way up he asked her where she was from, “Germany” she said. “Ah, ah…” he replied, then after a bit of thought he tried out the only German he knew and said “I love you…..only a little bit”. With map in hand we went in search of the art, some was around the town including a car park with he edges ‘lifted up’. But this is Japan, and if you are going to go in search of something it is almost undoubtedly going to involve going up a bloody great hill, today was no exception. But today was hot, stinking hot, so we flaked out at the top in the shade and ate lunch before Christine put on her food detector, went wandering off and came back with red currants, raspberries and blueberries. Having checked out some more whacky sculptures we went to another nearby area, a group of art around a campsite. The campsite had chalets, loos and showers as well as individual secluded camping areas in the shade and what is more there was nobody there. This seemed to be too good to be true, so as it was too hot for enjoyable cycling we stopped early and had a free campsite and a wonderful shower and great views across the valley to the mountians on the other side.

The following morning was back to cycling and trying to get somewhere. We climbed over a pass that had a long tunnel regulated by road works so we had the whole thing to ourselves, bliss at over a kilometre long (photo). We dropped down into a valley where it was a bit busier. I declined the first supermarket we saw, a bit of a dump, only to regret it a few k further on as we left habitation behind and still no sign of another supermarket. I waited for Christine to catch up, we didn’t need to say anything to each other, I could read the body language from 100m away. She was already planning what she could cook up with the little remaining food that we had , but my luck held out as we reached another store. It was another hot day and amongst other things we bought a box of 10 ice-creams on sticks and sat outside and demolished the lot. We stopped for lunch at a roadside rest area overlooking a nice little lake. I went to the loo and came back to find Christine had gone, also to the loo it turned out. We had been carrying margarine, though for some reason she had taken it but left the bag it had been in on the floor, very strange behaviour. Then I realised it had been stolen by a crow that was sitting 20m away trying to open it. I walked towards it, but it just picked up the container and flew off with it. On a previous occasion about a month ago another crow had picked up over half a kilo of chicken that was just feet from me, though on that occasion it didn’t quite have the strength and soon dropped it. We were heading up another climb through another series of switch backs, only to 880m this time, but it was tough in the heat. The pass came with a tunnel. Out the other side the scenery changed dramatically, we were looking down across the hills and a beautiful lake. The idea had been to camp beside it, but we instantly knew we had no chance as the sides were way too steep. As luck would have it we found a hut on the descent. The door was wide open and on the inside were tables and chairs, all recently used. To one side was a clean toilet block, to the other side a locked kitchen area. Nearby was some nice grass, so we made that our home for the night. There were hundreds of biting flies, just putting up the tent was bad enough, there was no way we were going to be able to cook outside, so having set up camp we retreated back to the hut and cooked inside. Just before dark a vehicle turned up. The guy came inside and told us in the little English he knew that he would be setting up lights for the flying insects. Once it was dark he had 2 powerful lights running of a generator. I have no idea what it was all about but he and his wife seemed to be having a wonderful time and wished us well later on as we turned in for the night.

The great views over the lake continued the following morning (photo), though once past the dam the road dropped sharply leaving us to follow the picturesque river. It was another stinking hot day. Any stop required shelter from the sun. At lunchtime we found some covered benches, had lunch the fell asleep on the benches. Getting going again was hard work in the heat of the afternoon. Later in the afternoon Christine spotted a sign to a camping area, so we went off route to have a look. It involved heading up a clonking great hill, I wasn’t best pleased with her, we didn’t know how far away it was or even if we would find it. We were all for turning back when I said we should give it one more kilometre, then not a moment too soon it came into view. Once again it was a lovely campsite, nobody there apart from the bloke closing the kiosk. We asked if we could camp there and he told us it was free. The place was great, very well kept with each site having its own platform and table and bench and it was so peaceful, no sound of cars at all. But I just don’t get it. How do these places stay open? We have stayed on 3 campsites, not seen another person camping and not been charged at any of them, and it’s almost the middle of summer. Christine’s theory is that they only have a very short vacation period and they all holiday at the same time. But this was Friday night, yet there was still nobody there for the weekend. I guess we shouldn’t complain too much.

So in more stinking hot weather we entered into Aizuwakamatsu, now that’s a mouthful isn’t it? I just love the Japanese place names. We have been through so many places starting with Matsu, for example Matsue, Matsuyama, Matsumoto, Matsunai, Matsunoyama, Matsushima to name but a few. They are all made up of descriptive words linked together, so Matsu means ’pine’, yama means ’hill’ or ’mountain’ etc, etc. So Matsuyama literally means a hill with pines on, and that is exactly how it started out, clever eh? The problem comes when some words have more than one meaning such as Matsu which can mean ’pine’ or ’wait, hold on’. So I looked up Aizuwakamatsu. It seems it means ’signal, 31 syllable poem, pine’. Hmm, may be our dictionary isn’t telling us all the variation. There is not a great deal here in town, but it have the obligatory castle and we did manage to check out a saki brewery with plenty more samples which had poor old Christine worrying about how on earth we were going to cycle back.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Day 755 - Takayama

I keep telling Christine she is costing me fortune to travel with her, but she won’t believe me. You may recall in the last posting that I lent her a jacket which immediately set her mind thinking. She knew of a good jacket manufacturer, Mont Bell, a Japanese company and they had a large store in Nara. So before we departed we went to visit it and hopefully get her a new jacket. She bought one, but so did I. My lightweight jacket is as good as useless and I ended up with a new one, too. In fairness it has worked very well - it hasn’t rained since, well, at least not on us. It was busy heading south out of Nara, but at least it was flat. We turned westward onto another main road, but we were really surprised at just how quiet it was, but it was climbing. Another turn and we all but had the main road to ourselves, though we were still climbing. It was hot, I was sweating buckets, I had to keep wiping my eyes. Then I managed to get something in my right eye, it wasn’t a problem at first but as more sweat went in, I had to keep rubbing my eyes, this just made things worse. We were over 600m, not far from the pass, but we saw a track heading into the woods. We followed it past a barrier and up a steep hill and camped in the only suitable spot, at least nobody would ever come up here. Oops! Wrong again! We were amazed when an elderly couple walked past as we were eating our dinner. My eye was getting worse the whole time, it was streaming. Christine was getting worried and insisted that I go and lie down and rest it, she even quietly did the washing up for me so that I didn’t notice. She wouldn’t even let me write my diary saying I would strain my eyes by doing so. I just lay down with my eyes covered with her reading to me from the guide book. It was that interesting I fell asleep!

I was amazed by the following morning how much better the eye was, I had assumed that it would be hurting for a few days, the rest obviously did it good. Perhaps Christine would make a good doctor. A few weeks back I cut my hair down to the last millimetre or so. When I had done so it revealed a very red sore patch on the side of my head, pretty ugly looking too. Christine looked at it and said she thought it was an eczema. The next day we went to a pharmacist and bought a tiny tube of something very expensive, but sure enough within about 10 days it had gone. We continued on the quiet main road, but after a village it narrowed down to a single track road. The descent from the pass was great, a tiny road twisting and turning through the trees with not a car in sight. I normally don’t like descents where the brakes are needed, it seem such as waste after all they energy expended on the way up, but this was just pure fun, though not so much fun that I had any desire to climb back up and do it again. We stopped for lunch at a little shrine with a waterfall. I took my shirt off and gave it a wash, then thought I might as well do the job properly and went in for a shower. It was very cold but I felt so good in the warmth of the sun for the next hour as my wet clothes dried off. We reached Ise, the home of the most sacred Shinto Shrine in Japan, in fact there were 2 of them. I was really disappointed with the first one, there was nobody there, how could that be if it was so sacred. There was nothing much to look at, you can’t even get close to the main sanctuary, and added to that the whole structure is replaced every 20 years. To me it looked like a farm museum, though Christine really liked its simplicity. We carried on past the second one for a couple of kilometres and camped beside the river, the chance for the second dip of the day, just as cold and invigorating as the first. We had bought some playing cards. Christine had been on to me to teach her how to play nomination whist. It not very good with two but it works. I taught her well, she beat me. Beginner’s luck.

We started the day with another cold dip, then made our way to the second shrine, having hauled our bikes up the steep bank back to the road. This one was much better, there were people there by the coach load that at least made it feel it was something special. There was a huge party of men in suits, we guessed it was some sort of company visit. They slowly made their way into the large main hall, then the doors were closed. We sat and listened to the music that was being played inside, it was diabolical! It was very high pitched from a single stringed instrument, I guess you would call it music. Later the doors opened, in contrast to the slow and orderly entrance to the place there was a minor stampede on the way out, I guess they didn’t really like the music either. I really don’t understand the Shinto Buddhists’ way of praying. First you throw some money into a big box, it makes a lot of noise so if you chuck in a small coin everybody knows you are a tight git! Once you have paid your fee you then bow twice, wait a second, then clap twice, then bow one more time and the job is done, easy as that. It seems to be more of a wish than a prayer. Also at the temples you can buy a ’lucky lottery ticket’. These cost between 100 and 300 Yen. Once paid for you open up the piece of paper and have a little read of the message inside. If it is good news then you keep hold of it and take it with you, if it is bad news then you tie it to a tree at the temple….Buddhism goes commercial! We made the short ride around to Toba where Christine visited the Pearl Island and museum whilst I waited outside and did a bit of writing. When she came out and told me all about it I was sorry I hadn’t gone in, it sounded really interesting. Apparently the oysters get operated on, and then have a period of 3 months in still water whilst they recover, poor little chaps. We caught the ferry across the bay, a 50 minute crossing. We had a personal assistant with us to show us where to buy the tickets, then guide us on the boat. The thing looked brand new, yet there was hardly anybody on it. It was wet and miserable, we stayed inside and played nomination whist, I lost again. I am a better teacher than I thought. When we came off the ferry it was still raining. We got on to a cycling road, passed the lighthouse, then found a picnic table under a shelter so opted to camp there for the night before we actually got wet. We played cards again, I lost again! It proved to be a good decision to stop there, the rain never stopped, it rained all night….hard.

We could hardly believe our luck. By the time we got up it had stopped raining. We had assumed we would be cycling in the rain all day, but not a drop fell on us. The ground was totally waterlogged and squelched under our feet, but once we were back on the road it was fine. We started with a nice long cycle road at the top of the beach before it once again joined the road. After a couple of kilometres I saw a sign to rejoin the cycle path, so I cut across the road at speed towards the cycle road that I could see going downhill, then “S-H-I-T……”, I had to brake hard as I discovered it wasn’t a hill but a flight of steps, not a warning in sight. Once again we were right on the coast and amazed to see all the car parks full and hundreds of surfers in the water. Before we left the coast Christine spotted a shower and made the most of it. We turned north and left the coast to arrive at route 23. What an awful road. It was an old elevated section of road that bypassed Toyohashi, it was way too narrow with slow moving traffic. Thankfully we were able to stay on a road beneath it, but there were major road works going on to widen the road. It kept crossing river where at least we were able to head up ramps and cycle beside it on cycle path though on the last one there was only a temporary cycle path bolted on. It was so narrow that with the strong crosswind we couldn’t even cycle along it, it was far too dangerous, we had to walk. Thankfully the narrow road came to an end, but we remained on busy roads the whole day. Lost again at cards, 4-0, to make matters worse I can’t even get close, will I ever win a game?

The start of the following day was more busy roads, hardly surprising as we were heading up the eastern side of Nagoya, a major city. We were heading for Toyota, a town which until a couple of weeks ago I never realised even existed. Funnily enough Japan’s biggest company, Toyota, has its head office there, and that is where we were heading. We had booked a tour of the plant over the internet, there were more questions to answer than applying for a visa, but at least we were accepted. We arrived at the museum in good time, time enough to have a look around the exhibition which focused in the future dreams as well as creating the reality of safer driving and protection along with greener fuel efficient cars. We were taken on a minibus to the Tsumtsu plant, their showcase plant. First we were shown around assembly, a slick operation if ever there was one. At the end of the assembly tour we were taken to a room where we could even try out some of the tools and techniques for ourselves. The second half of the tour was devoted to the body plant, a highly automated process. The bodies moved along the line in stages and at each stop robots leapt into action and completed all the spot welding, very impressive. After the tour we were dropped back at the museum were you could sit in any one of their new models or watch the highly prized robot playing a trumpet. The robot fascinated people yet to me a car with all its modern technology was far more impressive than something that just makes a lot of noise and keeps the neighbours awake at night. We cycled through Toyota town (photo) heading for another little Toyota museum which focused on the history, very interesting indeed. Sakichi Toyoda was the guy that invented the automatic loom greatly improving Japan’s textile industry making it into a world leader. His son, Kiichiro Toyoda continued on improving the loom and went over to USA on a business trip. He was highly impressed by all the cars he saw, all made in USA. At the time there were no Japanese car manufacturers, all the car in Japan were made in USA, so he came back with a dream to build a Japanese car for the masses made using Japanese skill and expertise. His father gave him £100,000 to develop the car and create a business. He and his team bought a 1933 Chevrolet, took it apart, measured and noted every precise detail and set about building their own car. It took two years and went into production the following year. With the onset of war production turned to trucks, but after the war another new car was brought out and the success continued. Kiichiro Toyoda died in 1952 at the age of 57, but I am sure he would be amazed and very proud of what he has started. I have to add as a footnote to all that, that Toyota is one of the few makes of car that I have seen in every country I have visited and with plants in over 27 countries it is now a truly global business. Finally, why is it now called Toyota if it was founded by Toyoda? Apparently there are 3 reasons. In Japanese text Toyoda takes 10 strokes of the pen whereas Toyota only take 8 and 8 in Japan is always considered lucky, that’s why they have 8 days in week here. Secondly Toyoda himself felt Toyota sounded better and finally he wanted the company to be separate from his family name. The city of Toyota has been named as such since the building of the first car plant there. So, having finished our history lesson we went in search of a campsite around the large lake opposite, but it was a country club so we moved on. Christine was getting a bit stressed as it was getting late, so we took the first place we could find, a bit close to houses, but on a bit of waste land up some steps. After we had been there about an hour 3 women arrived soon followed by a couple of men. We were surprised to see anybody, let alone a small crowd, but it soon became apparent that they didn’t want us to camp there. We asked them why we couldn’t camp and they told us they were afraid we would set fire to the wood behind us, extremely unlikely given that the trees were about 5m away and pretty wet after the recent rains. I was pretty pissed off about it all. We had seen posters in the area with ’Crime Prevention’ in English on them and I considered them to be a bunch of Do-Gooders for the community that didn’t want a couple of smelly foreigners on their patch, Christine though thought differently, especially as one of them took me in a car to show me a place where we could camp. The place he showed me I would never have chosen myself, but we had little time before it was dark so I bowed to their local knowledge and we moved there. Still, not everything was bad, I at last beat Christine at cards: 4-1. At about 22:30 there was a knock on the tent door and I opened it to a torch in my face held by a security guy who was clearly telling us that we couldn’t camp there and that we had to move on. At that time of night it would have been a real pain especially as we wouldn’t find anywhere else to camp in the dark, so I refused and shock my head. After a lot of head shaking from both parties we seemed to be getting nowhere so I told him we would be gone at 8am. He was telling us something we couldn’t understand so we handed him a pen and paper. To my surprise he handed it back with 07:00 written on it, I agreed only too quickly, then there was hand shaking and smiles all around and he departed.

We departed the following morning by 06:30, the last thing we wanted was to cause trouble for the security guard who had been so friendly and considerate to us. As we departed we noticed a sign for no camping. This made Christine very angry towards the Do-Gooders as they must have known we wouldn’t have been allowed to camp there. Still I guess the 3 women who approached us would be hailed as heroes for evicting a couple of likely criminals on bikes with a tent. We had breakfast by the lake and I threw a single piece of bread in for a passing carp that missed it, but within minutes there were dozens circling, big ones too. In every bit of freshwater there are carp and koi carp swimming. We see people fishing, but never for the carp for some reason. The route today was north but across country, lots of navigation on the back roads and as it was hilly it was slow going and took much longer than expected. We passed a river where teams of rowers were out practicing, and on the roads we were passing day cyclists, it was the weekend. To make the climbs worse it was really hot and humid, the sweat was pouring off. By the end of the day we were pretty tired and typically as we started to look for a place to camp we embarked on the biggest climb of the day and it wasn’t until we reached the top before we found any land flat enough to camp on. The spot we had chosen was fine apart from the ants, which as Christine was doing no end of chopping were really annoying her. I annoyed her even more at cards: 4-2.
We expected another hard day but soon found ourselves going around a road closed sign and heading down a descent. It was only a tiny road and looked as though it had been closed for a long time judging by the debris and the odd fallen tree. We were descending fast and losing all the height we had just gained the previous evening. The further we went down hill the worse the feeling got that it was all going horribly wrong. If there was a bridge out at the bottom we would have to climb all the way back up again. Thankfully the road was only closed for a landslide that we could easily get around. We were back on a main road and heading for the Japanese Alps. The road was really nice, through a steep sided valley with a river at the bottom, the road constantly bending as we passed through all the points of the compass. It eventually brought us out to Gero, another spa town which made it very tempting to stop and head for an onsen to have a good scrub down. We pressed on, left the main road and were once again climbing as we were looking for a campsite. This time we opted to stay at the edge of a village beside the river. We were in view, but nobody was interested in us thankfully. 4-3.

The climb continued the following morning as the road narrowed down and twisted its way through the forest and up to just over 1000m before widening again for a fast and furious descent towards Takayama, nestled amongst the mountains. We checked ourselves into the Zenko-ji Buddhist temple that also has hostel type accommodation. We had a choice of rooms, all with paper thin walls, and when I say paper thin I am not exaggerating, that is exactly what they were made of….paper. There was a 22:30 curfew on noise which at the time I thought was quite reasonable, though it soon became apparent that anything more than light breathing would be classed as anti-social behaviour in this place. Thankfully there was nobody directly next to us, but the people next door but one whispered and we could hear every word. I even had to curtail my pure delight as I once again thrashed Christine at cards: 4-4. How on earth had she ever managed to win the first 4 games, it must have been beginner’s luck.

Takayama is a nice little town. Across the river are some lovely old preserved wooden houses and further up the hill and about 13 temples in woodland. We weren’t able to appreciate it fully due to the thunderstorms. Today we decided we had had enough of whispering and moved to another hostel around the corner where you are allowed to talk during the evening. We went out to the main attraction today, a folk village full of old houses from around the area. They were all very atmospheric, especially the ones with the wood fires burning in the middle (photo). Just across the road was a massive World Shrine of some new religion started here in Takayama, a truly massive shrine seating more than 10,000 people. Whilst we were there a coach full of people arrived, they were completely lost in there, but at least they seem to say the odd prayer between the clapping of hands. Last night I won another game of card 4-5. Tonight I did Christine a good deed and repaired her broken watch strap, sewing it together with dental floss. I think I did a pretty good job, if you ignore the white stitching on the black strap.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Day 745 - Nara

Kyoto was a former capital or Japan, it looked it too. On the surface it looks pretty much like any Japanese city, a bit of a sprawl around the edges with a modern central area, but with Kyoto you don’t have to dig too far below the surface to find that it is very different from the other cities. There are temples here, hundreds and hundreds of temples and shrines, enough to keep any fanatic happy for a long, long time. But everything is pretty spread out, so our first day in town was spent on foot, after 10 days on the road we were only too happy to leave the bikes behind for the day. We visited the castle and the Imperial Palace. The latter was free entry and run with typical Japanese organisation. First you had to book yourself on a tour which took a little form filling and having your passport checked, then you were allowed as far as the information kiosk, then to the waiting room where you were shown a 10 minute film of he route you would be taken on an the things that you would be seeing. The tour started, the group followed by a security guy at the back. This was the format we became familiar with at other sites over the next few days. The following days were spent on the bikes as everything else was spread out at all corners of the city, but but by the end we had a good feeling for the place, we liked it and were a little sorry to be leaving, we could have easily stayed longer but there are only so many temples that you can take in before becoming ‘templed out’. We ate well too, especially on the last day, rounding our stay off with an ‘all you can eat buffet’. This was just great for us. Being as we do most the cooking ourselves, the buffet enabled us to sample lots of different Japanese dishes, all very delicious and very good quality too, though every dessert apart from the yogurt contained good old soya beans. Almost anything sweet has either soya beans on the outside, or disguised and put inside instead. Here they had what I classed as ‘Soya Bean Surprise’, this had soya beans on the outside and on the inside!

Our time in Kyoto had been blessed with good weather, sometimes too good, too hot. Now we were ready to depart we opened the curtains to grey weather which by the time we were actually ready to leave had turned into rain, the type of rain that looked set in for the day, and that is exactly right, it rained all day. So we set off down the busy highway one in the wet, a horrible road, unsurprisingly busy, narrow, with a climb and descent through the hills. We were struggling to find anything positive in the day. By midday the only good thing was the trains that passed us, we were seeing the super fast bullet type things, and boy, did they shift, but they were also so quiet. We obviously don’t have anything as nearly as fast as that in the UK and why would we need them anyway? What’s the point of really fast trains if you are still going to be an hour or two late anyway? We stopped at a supermarket, Christine was cold and wet, very wet. Christine prides herself in being an ’ultra-lighter’, so everything of hers fit into just 3 bags, I carry 7! She also carries 2 jackets, so do I, but both of hers are crap and let in water at about the same rate that my t-shirt does. I have offered her a decent jacket before but she has always refused, but on this occasion to my surprise she accepted. It immediately raised her spirits, she felt much warmer and drier despite still wearing the soaking wet shirt underneath. She soon told me she was making plans of how she could get hold of a decent jacket. The rain continued, but at least we could get off the main road. We were heading for a museum, the Miho Museum, billed as ’The Museum on the Mountain’. We eventually saw a signpost stating we had another 15km to go, “That’s easy” called out Christine, “we will be there soon”. But the description of the museum was a bit of an indication of what might lie ahead, so for most of the 15km we were heading up hill and by the time we got there Christine exclaimed “I thought we were never going to get here!” But make it we did, and when we arrived we were treated like royalty, we were shown where to leave the bikes and immediately given umbrellas, though to be honest it was a bit late for that. Oh, that reminds me of the best cycle gadget here in Japan, the umbrella holder that fits on the handlebars so that you can ride along with your umbrella up, good for both sun and rain. We changed and dried ourselves off in the posh loos, then we were shown into a buggy to be driven the 500m from the museum reception to the museum itself. It was an interesting place, owned and run by a religious sect, designed by world renowned architect I.M. Pei, and built at a cost of $250m. The whole thing was packaged as a unity of landscape, architecture and exhibits. The exhibits were more for their beauty than anything else, displayed beautifully with impressive lighting, but in reality there was a huge building with not much in there to see, the architecture stole the show. We were driven back to the reception, doors were opened for us, then we were once again slung out into the rain. Thankfully Christine had cycled up with her eyes open and had spotted a good camp site just 2km back, so we returned down the hill to a wonderful grassed area beside the river, even with a little shelter nearby that we were able to cook under.

The following day looked far more promising as we started to climb back up the hill. Right from the start we were seeing other day cyclists on their racing bikes, it was a Saturday. We stopped for a long chat with one, Kazushi, he spoke very good English, that’s quite unusual here. Before long we were over a short pass, onto and off another main road and on a delightful road through the hills, made even more delightful as it was slightly downhill for a very long way, passing through small villages and tea plantations (photo), one of the nicest roads we have been on in my opinion. We stayed on the back roads all the way to Nara and got there much sooner than I expected, I had rather thought that it would take us a couple of days. Once booked into a nice little guest house with a tatami room and futons, we set about looking around the city and a temple complex complete with 3 and 5 storey pagodas (photo). Nara is another of Japan’s ancient capitals, but with all its main attractions in park land very close to the city centre, it has a very different feel to any other city. Along with its extensive park land there are hundreds of semi-wild deer, very tame and laid back, feeding off a bit of grass or loitering around the deer food sellers. But this is Japan where good manners are all important. I saw one man feed the deer, be bowed twice to the deer and the deer bowed its head back twice, only then was it given the food. Not all the deer had the same impeccable manners, others followed those with food and just tugged at their shirts if they didn’t get what they wanted.

We eventually had a reasonable night’s sleep, despite our host and his friends having a little too much to drink and making rather a lot of noise. After our free breakfast we returned to our room and had a proper breakfast. First stop for the day was the Todajii temple, probably the top sight here in Nara. Rebuilt around the 12th Century at about 2/3 of the size of the original building, the temple house a jolly big Buddha image and is the largest wooden building in the world, very impressive. Outside sits another image, a right ugly thing that looked like death warmed up. Legend has it that if you have an ailment and touch the corresponding part of the Buddha’s body, then the same part of your body, you will be cured. Jolly useful really, the only problem being about the only point that you could reach was its foot, you might as well go to a chiropodist! Next stop as the Kasuga Grand Shrine (photo), home to about 4,000 lanterns, about 2,000 of which were made of stone. We timed it well as the best thing about the place was the wedding that was taking place with the last bit of the ceremony and the photo session taking place right in front of us, complete with the women wearing the traditional kimono dresses. There weren’t many happy faces. Did nobody like each other or was the clothing just too uncomfortable? We broke the day with another buffet lunch, before exploring the old part of the city with lovely latticed wooden houses, one of which was a museum that could be walked around.

So tomorrow we move on again. As yet we have no plans as to where we will next make a stop, that means I have no idea how long it will be before the next update, so that’s good news isn‘t it?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Day 742 - Kyoto

After ten consecutive days of camping it feels very strange to be into city life again, but it’s a huge contrast to the countryside and comes as a welcome change. Also, after being in Japan for 4 weeks now we have arrived in Kyoto, about 100km from Osaka, our arrival point.

Getting out of the big city of Hiroshima wasn’t too bad, but it was busy and the roads not the easiest to follow on the map. It was well into the second day before we really got onto any quiet roads, but once we did it was pure bliss. We had been going nicely for about half an hour without any traffic. Over the past few days my gears hadn’t been running as smoothly as usual. I put that down to the fact that I knew I needed a new chain and probably needed to replace the cassette at the same time, but all of a sudden they were terrible. I stopped for a quick check only to find that the cassette retaining ring had come completely undone leaving the smallest cog off the cassette and not even moving. We were due to stop for lunch anyway, so I quickly took the back wheel off and put everything back into place, though I was now kicking myself for not trying harder to locate a bike shop in Hiroshima. We both needed new bike parts whilst in New Zealand, but even in Auckland we couldn’t get what we wanted, so decided to leave things until we arrived in Japan, the home of Shimano. A big mistake! There are plenty of bikes here, even a few bike shops, but a bike shop is exactly that, a bike shop. If you want a cheap new bike there is no problem, if you want a spare part, forget it. During the afternoon the road got smaller and smaller and the drizzle started and turned into rain. We were climbing too, up to, and beyond a dam, though by the time we reached it we were already at cloud level which with the low water level created a mysterious feel to the place. By the time we were ready to camp we were back on the main roads, we found a new bridge, so new in fact that it didn’t even have the road running over the top of it. We camped next to it and cooked our dinner underneath it in the shelter.

We had been climbing again, so with just 1km completed the following morning we were at another pass and heading downhill on good roads. By the time I had reached the bottom the gears were at it again. A stop to check revealed the cassette retaining ring had come off again, this time I tightened it as much as I could. I really couldn’t see what was wrong, so I was pretty sure it would be happening again. Another little climb and descent on a mainish road brought us to a junction where we had to decide if we really wanted to go to Matsue or bypass it, and in the end the bypass route won. It was a good decision too, on a much smaller road and even better, after just 1km the road was closed, though there was still enough room to get a bike through, but that meant we had the road to ourselves from there on. It was a nice road too, a real delight with no traffic. We were heading for the village of Yasugi where we wanted to visit the Adachi Museum of Fine Art, though luckily Christine was awake and spotted it some 8km or so before the village, I wouldn’t have been best pleased to have had to return all that way. So often in Asia prices are marked up for foreigners, though Japan is relatively expensive, but it comes as a surprise here to find that some things are actually cheaper for foreigners, this museum being case in point at half price for us. All we had to do was show a passport, though I felt pretty sure I didn’t look Japanese. The art was good, all Japanese art, some a little quirky, like the sunset over the sea, though the artist had painted a sunset where sun didn’t dip beyond the horizon, instead it was in front of the sea, a hot day indeed. But the highlight for me had undoubtedly been the garden of the place. I had been looking forward to seeing some nice Japanese gardens, but this was probably the best of the lot, in fact it had been voted Japan’s best garden for the last 6 years by Japanese horticulturists boffy type organisations, high praise indeed. It was worthy of it though, hardly a blade of grass was out of place, in fact it was so perfect you weren’t even allowed into it, it had to viewed through windows with just a couple of places where you could step outside, so long as you wiped your feet first! The garden blended into the landscape tremendously, it rose up towards the back of the garden hiding the main road and houses behind, yet further still the mountains were still visible. The garden was also integrated with the art museum and windows had been cleverly placed around the buildings to make it look as though it was a living picture you were looking at. The weather had been heading downhill during the day, so having left we camped nearby in the grounds of a temple. We timed it well, we had just about finished eating when the rain really set in, it lasted all night.

We timed it well the following morning too, the rain stopped at about the time we were getting up. Being as we no longer needed to go to Yasugi, we bypassed that too, instead following the compass on little back roads through paddy fields and little valleys through the hills to Yonago on the north coast of Honshu. On leaving Yonago we were heading along route 9 that made its way right along the coast and the bottom of the volcanic Mt Daisen. By looking at the map it promised to be a nice route….it wasn’t. It was busy, busy, busy and boring too. To make matters worse visibility was very poor, we had just one brief glimpse of the volcano, otherwise you would never have known there was even a mountain there. We made the most of it though by getting off on to little roads beside the main road which passed through villages and were far more interesting, though it did cause us to back track a couple of times. During the day the weather just got worse and worse, it was now raining, it wasn’t too long before we were soaked. Later in the afternoon we spotted a campsite right beside the road, it even had a large shelter, it would have been ideal but it was also right next to the main road, it was just too noisy. We had to head inland to try and find somewhere to camp, but all we found was houses and more houses. We used our usual tactics, if we find somewhere that looks promising we split up and search a couple of different spots. It usually works very well and saves time too, this time was no exception, we were amazed to find a little open area amongst some pine trees, totally secluded and to make things even better the rain stopped long enough for us to set up camp, though cooking that night was done in the tent. That day had been the 24th May, the start of my 3rd year on the road. So where have the last two years gone? Two years at home would have seemed a long time, but these last two years have passed so quickly. I think there are good reasons for this, for example with every day being different, new challenges, new things to see, different people to see, that no day is ever the same. There is routine, sure, but it’s different to routine of a job at home. Added to that for most of the last two years I have bypassed all the seasons, for 21 months of the last two years it was just like one long summer, summer only came to an end in New Zealand, though I am back into summer again here in Japan, albeit a wet summer.

It continued to rain on and off during the night, but once again it had stopped by the time we set off. The roads were soon drying in the warmth of the day, though it wasn’t enough to stop us getting wet. We were still heading along the flat coastal area, an area covered in little farms growing all sorts of veggies, though there were even a lot of grapes being grown in greenhouses here. The farmers of the veggie fields had their sprinklers on even after the rains, and not always on target. We constantly passed sprinklers that were watering the road and by heck it was worse than rain, they were icy cold showers to pass through. We started to get into the more rugged shoreline, even some bypasses had been built which meant at times we had wonderfully scenic coast roads to ride along, but they didn’t last long enough as for much of the afternoon there was no getting away from the busy route 9, we just had to grin and bear it, along with the tunnels. We passed the busy town of Tottori and once again escaped the main road by heading down to the coast. This was a little tourist hotspot due to the massive 16km long dunes there. Part of it was like a desert scene with steep dune rising up. To give that desert scene a little more authenticity you could even take a camel ride! Nearby we met the first western cyclists we have seen here, a couple from Tasmania. We stopped and had a long chat, though they were heading in the opposite direction to us. A little further down the coast we passed what seemed to be a sand castle festival. There were big and impressive creations, though I am sure they weren’t free standing, they must have used a bit of glue or something. A little further on we at last left route 9 as it headed inland, we stayed on the coast on the 178, much more peaceful, though we soon found out why the main road went inland, we were on a roller coaster of a road. To make matters worse we had decided to stop early, though the land was so steep there was nowhere to camp, typical. Eventually we dropped down to a small village on the coast. We decided we had to find a place there for the night, so camped at the end of the beach. Christine got a bit concerned anytime somebody came near, “Oh no, what are we going to do…this means trouble”, but they all ignored us and went on their way. Christine was amazed “If this was Germany somebody would have reported us to the police and we would have been moved on”. We talked about camping with the Aussies and just how safe it is to camp here. There is no “yob culture” here at all, if you are camped in view of people and you are doing no harm, nobody bothers you, it’s very relaxed. The sun was a wonderful big glowing red ball as it went down, though it completely disappeared in a haze before it reached the horizon, may be that was the reason for the artist’s mistake I mentioned earlier.

You are never far from somebody in Japan. Christine went to the loo at 05:30 just as somebody was walking past the campsite. The road hugged the coastline all day, a rugged coast that made for tough riding. As soon as we made it to the top of a climb the road once again swooped back to sea level and the next climb started, it was pretty much relentless all day, though the scenery certainly made all the effort worth while. It was now time for Christine’s bike to start grumbling. Her bike had been in need a new bottom bracket since New Zealand and today there were loud ominous clicks coming from it, I could here it from way off, I knew that wasn’t going to make Christine very happy, especially as there was nothing we could do about it, it just needed to be replaced pretty urgently, and we certainly weren’t going to stumble on a decent bike shop out here, we weren’t even that hopeful of find a decent supermarket. The hilly days here also mean that we will be passing through tunnels, today alone we passed through 13, some have decent cycle paths, but on most you have to rely on decent drivers, and thankfully that is what they are here. We passed through little fishing villages, at each one fish and squid and other strange things were hanging up to dry, sea weed was laid out on bamboo on the pavement….hmmmmm, yum yum! It was all very atmospheric a lovely place to be cycling through, until you want somewhere to camp that is. Once again we decided as we were by the sea, it was warm with nice scenery we would stop early and soak up the scenery by the sea. Once again it just didn’t happen, there was nothing flat apart from in the villages. We could see the road climbing up the cliff side out of the village, camping nearby would be our best bet. We found nothing, despite asking somebody if we could camp on an old rice paddy. Another hour had been wasted so we set off demoralised into another climb, not knowing when we would find anywhere suitable. We passed through another tiny village where right beside the sea was a tiny grassed area with a bench. We asked if we could camp there but we weren’t given permission. There is always one little problem when we ask for permission to camp, the person we ask never stops talking. They are only trying to be friendly and helpful, but we make it clear that we can’t understand a word they are saying, but that doesn’t deter them at all, they just keep on talking as though we can understand every word they are saying. They are not like us Brits though. If somebody doesn’t understand us we just repeat what we had said, only louder. Here they just keep talking at the same level, I think they embarrassed and don’t know how to stop, and we become embarrassed and don’t know how to stop them, in the end we just have to slowly back off saying “ok, ok, arigato gozamas” (Thank you very much). Things were looking bad, it was getting late and the lie of the land wasn’t getting any better, until we stumbled on a flat gravelled area. We pulled in for a look to discover a couple of unused rice terraces at the back. They were a bit overgrown and soggy, but they were our best hope, so we lifted all the gear and the bikes to the upper level. There were trees growing on the terracing now, I think they were golf ball trees. I haven’t seen them before, in fact I didn’t even realised golf balls grew on trees, but that is what they must have been as both terraces were covered in golf balls, there were hundreds of them.

We had been on the go a few days by now, we were both looking forward to a restful day, but it never seemed to come and what’s more, it would be a long time before we reached Kyoto, our next city stop. With that in mind we decided to have a really easy day, so we had a nice lie in, it was 09:30 before we were packed and ready to move. It was another morning where we didn’t have to go far to the top of the climb, then after a nice descent we were confronted with a river. With an easy day in mind we made a detour to our intended route and headed up river to the spa town of Kinosaki, a lovely little town with the main street running down both sides of the willow lined river, a river well stocked with carp, as every bit of freshwater here seems to be. Whilst Christine checked out the info for the spa I did another quick tighten up of the cassette, once again the gears were getting a bit dodgy. We chose an onsen (spa bath) that had an outside pool and made our way there. We are now experts in the art of spa baths. First of all there is the outer locker where you keep your shoes, then you proceed to the changing rooms, strip off, leave all your clothes in another locker, then into the spa itself. You then sit on a plastic tub, scrub and shower yourself down and only when thoroughly clean do you proceed to the spa pools. The only problem is that they are so blooming hot that you are knackered within less than 10 minutes and as there are no cool pools all you can really do is dry yourself off and leave, though at this one there were some nice seats in the entrance area to relax in. We paid a visit to the supermarket and with dinner in hand went to find somewhere to sit and eat. We stopped beside a pool and only discovered that it was a free foot spa when others came along and sat with us with their feet in the water. The couple were English speakers so we were able to ask them all the questions about Japan that we couldn’t fathom out for ourselves. Others came and went, it was all very relaxing and sociable. It was time to make a move, we only covered about another 20km but went over two small passes, made ever worse as the gears on my poor bike crunch and grind away, we need a bike shop desperately. Once again, finding a campsite was challenging, we chose a flat bit of land that only seemed to be used for storage, so tucked ourselves in behind a couple of bales so that nobody could see us. Christine’s Japanese continues to improve and she takes great pleasure of informing me about the language. For example, when she is in a good mood she calls me ‘Sunshine‘, but informed my that a name is always followed by San as a title, the same for male of female, so she calls me ‘Sunshine San‘. Now, if you really respect somebody then you can add an O at the front, so when she is in a really good mood she calls me ‘O Sunshine San‘. She is also sometimes in a bad mood, I can always tell when she is in a bad mood as she just calls me ‘Arsehole‘. I have looked it up in the Japanese dictionary we have but I can’t find it anywhere!

We had another bit of a lie in, then I was surprised when a vehicle arrived at our little camp area. A man got out of the van and I waved at him, he waved back. Christine went into panic mode “Oh, shit, we are in real trouble now. What are we going to do if he comes over?” she asked, “I suspect I will say ‘Ohayo gozamas’” I replied (Good Morning). “He is coming over now” I told her “Oh shit…..” came the reply. The guy was really friendly and was interested to know about our bike tour. Communication was a little difficult as we couldn’t understand each other and after each time he spoke and realised we didn’t understand a word he burst out laughing and I joined in. We went off to his green house and brought us back a freshly picked lettuce, at last Christine was convinced the guy was being friendly. He disappeared again and came back with some peas, then laughed again as we asked the best way to eat them. He showed us how to strip off the ‘rind’ then eat the lot, all shown in fits of laughter. Before we left I asked to take a photo of him, as expected it brought more laughter from him. What a lovely chap, I really liked him. We were now heading up the coast again, this time the long way around the Tango Peninsula, more rugged scenery, more hills, more complaining from the bikes. We passed through another small spa town, this time we just stopped to use the loos. Outside were some road works. Most of the time road work don’t involve traffic lights, they normally have flag wavers at each end, a red flag held steady means stop, a white flags waved means proceed and a white flag waved vigorously mean “hurry up you slow cyclists”. The flags wavers are nearly always jolly chaps and take great pride in their jobs and show us exactly where we should cycle as we pass the road works, consequently everybody treats them with respect, but I think that is generally the Japanese way anyway. On this occasion as I waited for Christine one came over and started talking to me. We were stood beside some vending machines and he insisted on buying us both a can of cold drink. We duly accepted and then he told us he had to return to work. Right beside us was another foot spa, so we sat, drank and relaxed with our feet in the warm water and contemplated on how well we are being treated here, especially today. A little further on I pulled over to wait for Christine who hadn’t made it through a set of traffic lights. I woman on a motorcycle stopped assuming we were lost and did her best to show us where we were on the map. I thanked her for her kindness, despite the fact I knew exactly where we were. Just a few km further on I saw the same woman coming towards us, this time she pulled over again and handed us some maps and a tourist brochure of the area, we really were being treated well today. More climbs followed, I was beginning to dread the steep bits as my gears objected and crunched away. As we were heading up a gentle climb another crunch came, this one forcing us to stop as my chain had broken. I took out a couple of links and as I checked everything else I found one of the jockey wheels loose. (For the non cyclists reading this, it’s one of the thingy wheels hanging below the what’s its name thing at the back). I tightened it back up and once we got going I was amazed to find that normally service had been resumed and it was once again all running really smoothly. We filled up early with water so that if we found a good place to camp we could just stop at anytime. Before we had even left the village we spotted a great camping spot by the harbour and closer investigation showed us that it was actually a closed campsite, at least the shower block was locked anyway. We decided to camp there anyway, which once again worked out to be of great fortune as it immediately started to rain and we had the luxury on large tables under and big shelter, just perfect. Despite us being in view at the edge of the village nobody bothered us at all.

More great coastal scenery (photo) followed the following morning, though it would have even better if we had been able to have a clear view, something that seems to be a very rare thing here. Right from the start Christine’s bottom bracket was once again making terrible cracking noises, it had been almost silent the last couple of days. We were now at the furthest point from any chance of getting it sorted out, so all I could do was reassure her that every turn of the pedal would bring her closer to civilisation. After 20km of grinding through the hills we reached the pleasant fishing town of Ine, where houses lined the waters edge, each with its own personal boat port underneath the house. Now we enjoyed some flat coastal riding with the wind on our backs for a change, but Christine’s bike continued to complain, until just after we had visited our first Shinto temple she called out “It’s locked up all together”. Oh shit. I managed to free it by pushing the pedal back with my hands, I guessed the bearing were splitting and braking and fragments were jamming up the working bearings. We crossed the 3km sand spit of Amanchashidate where her bike once again seized up. At lunch Christine wanted to discuss if it would be better to take the train to Kyoto from here, but when I suggested that she could take the train and I would meet her in Kyoto it didn’t go down well at all, she used that odd Japanese word again and stormed off. We went to the nearest info centre and they pointed us to a bike shop in the next town, though once we arrived we immediately knew we had little chance of getting it sorted. Now the whole of the crank set was wobbling from side to side, though the mechanic assured us it was safe to continue a little. We had two routes to choose from to get us to Kyoto, once was a shortish route through the mountains, the other longer, flatter and alongside Lake Biwako. In the end we decided on neither, instead opting for the shortest possible route along the main road which we guessed would be pretty flat just by the fact that it was a main road. So we headed inland and camped behind a temple. Before setting up camp we popped into the temple and requested a successful passage through to Kyoto.

We were back on the main roads the following morning, passing through a large town that on our map was marked as just a one road turn off. Progress was good, amazingly Christine’s bike was on its best behaviour and was silent the whole day. With that in mind we ventured off the main road when we could on to the little back roads that ran on the other side of the river to the main road and were all but deserted. We stopped for lunch with a view across the river, it was now even hot. The roads switched sides of the river, I suspect ours was much more hilly, it was hot going, then, all of a sudden a mirage appeared, a row of nine vending machines, at last cold drinks to quench our thirst. But isn’t that just bloody typical, when you are in the middle of nowhere, not a house in sight and you are desperate for a cold drink, all you can find is nine vending machine that are stocked with nothing but pornographic DVD’s! Once again we took the small roads and headed away from the main road. Despite following the course of the railway line the road started to climb for a few kilometres. We were heading for a dam, and as we thought it might start to get hard to find a place to camp near Kyoto we went to the dam to see it we could find anything there. Once again we were in luck, right beside the dam there was a picnic area, complete with tables and benches that were covered. We had timed it to perfection again as we could hear thunder getting ever closer. We didn’t even have time to set up them tent before the heavens opened, we just sat under the shelter and talked, another 5 minutes and we would have had a soaking.

It rained most of the night, at times hard, but the ground drained well and we remained dry the whole time. We had just another 50km to make it to Kyoto, we prayed that our bikes would hold out, though mine was not causing any more concern. As soon as we started Christine’s bottom bracket started to make more noises, I could only guess that more bearings were braking up, we decided on the shortest route back to the main road and to just stick on it and hope for the best. We passed through the town of Kameoka where there were dealerships for every Japanese car maker you could think of, but not a single bike shop. From the map I thought we had one more climb to get over and I guessed once we reached the tunnel I could see on the map, it would be the last hill. The climb started, we climbed very slowly as Christine eased her bike up the hill, trying her hardest not to put too much pressure on the bike. The nearer it got to the top it started to grind, it sounded terrible and very loud, like somebody scratching their finger nails down a black board. A short bit of back pedalling would stop it for a while, but it soon started again. I wished that around each corner I would see the tunnel, but it never seemed to appear. The road started to get steeper, the bike started to complain even more, until we decided it was better to walk the rest of the way to the tunnel and save the cycling for the flat bit, we still had about 15km to go and the less walking we were left with the better. At long, long last the tunnel came into view and was followed by about 5km of descent, then I could hardly believe my eyes, across the road was a huge bike shop…..we had made it. It all too soon became apparent that we hadn’t made it, it was a huge bike shop selling hundreds of crap bikes, but no parts other than the odd saddle, light or lock. But this is Japan and here they will go out of their way to help you and they kindly located on our map where we would find the parts we needed, and what is more it was right beside the train station, and that is exactly where we were heading for. We checked the bottom bracket, I was now alarmed to find that it moved about 3cm from side to side, was there anything left inside the thing? We just had to hope it would last the final 10km on the flat. We passed other bike shops and were told the same, we even called in a specialist shops that sold nothing but folding bike, including Bromptons and Moultons from the UK, but they couldn’t help us with a bottom bracket. We followed the instructions we had been given for the bike shop and despite it being a Sunday it was open, though my heart sank when I saw it, it was another crap bike shop with not a part in sight, this was our best hope, what were our chances now? Christine spotted a small sign on a small stairway, so we went up to the second floor, wow!!!! It was like entering an Aladdin’s Cave, a real bike shop, real bikes with gears and things and real parts too. There were real people in there that even knew how real bikes worked and they really would do it now, on the spot. They had the right bottom bracket and with relief they set to work. The bottom bracket didn’t want to come out, but eventually it did, in two parts with a small pile of bearings remaining inside the frame. After a few more problems the mechanic was doing all sorts of things that had nothing to do with the bottom bracket and it became evident that the bike was getting a full service. It took almost 2 hours and we dreaded getting the bill but were amazed and delighted when the labour charges came to just 1500 Yen, just over £10 for 2 hours work. I even managed to buy a new chain and cassette, though I wasn’t surprised to leave without a new middle chain ring. Now it was time to go in search of somewhere to stay. We tried two hostels, both were expensive, both were full and fully booked for the next 5 days. With this in mind we went to the Kyoto Information Office at the railway station. Kyoto isn’t a huge city but its station certainly is, so big in fact that they produce a guide book for it. We had to find the information office without the use of the guide book, just the use of the map on the outside, they weren’t much use, we couldn’t even find the lift, we needed to get to the 9th floor. We eventually got there by using the escalators. The people in the office as usual were so helpful. The cheapest place they had was a hotel at 2500 Yen per person. We took it but expected a real dive as the hostels we had visited were 3500 Yen per person, but we were in for a real surprise. The place was excellent and included free internet and yakutta (bath robes), and the usual heated loo seats with bidet, this one with a remote control! We later checked the hotels rates on the website and discovered that the normal rates are 15000 Yen a night, we had arrived at the time of a special offer. After a good scrub down we went for a stroll around town. It seemed so strange to be wandering around city streets with so many other people. Everything seemed exciting to us. To just see the cities of Japan is to miss out on so much from the rural life, but to miss the city life, well that would also be a great loss.