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.