Finding our way out of Aizuwakamatsu couldn’t have been easier, out of the hotel, turn left and follow route 121 south, job done. It was another stinking hot day, but the plan was to get to Nikko in 2 days, arriving there as early as possible, so we wanted to get as far as possible on the first day, not so great in the heat. Nothing much happened, progress was slow as we made our way up to another pass, though thankfully the gradient was gentle the whole way. Needless to say there were the obligatory tunnels, including the longest we have used in Japan so far at 2.5km. There are plenty of longer tunnels on the big main roads, but we do our best to steer clear of those. After a short descent we were climbing again, ever slowly upwards. Another tunnel signalled the pass itself, then at long last we were heading gently downhill. When it came to camping we used our usual tactics, find a reasonably likely spot, then one checks it out whilst the other goes on and checks any other likely spots. I found a suitable spot, went back to collect Christine then we both returned to the spot. As we arrived back there was a big commotion in the trees as in the short time I had been away a whole herd of monkeys had gone into the trees and our arrival had frightened them off. It’s seems to be more like camping in a zoo these days with this incident closely following encounters with bears and snakes. We weren’t sure if they would come back and be a bit inquisitive, so to be on the safe side we locked all the bags together. It drizzled all night, non stop, we were surely in for a wet day tomorrow.
They didn’t come back and what’s more we didn’t get the wet day either. It drizzled as we departed and headed down the valley. It wasn’t long before we were twisting and turning alongside a wide shallow river course, we could see the road ahead crossing bridges and eventually disappearing into a tunnel. Tunnels were again a theme of the day though thankfully they were short. The Japanese love their tunnels, any scenic route is guaranteed to have a few and new tunnels are being built all the time as long narrow loops in the roads are cut off and replaced with a tunnel. There are also kilometres worth of ‘rock sheds’ and even more of ‘snow sheds’, a reminder of just how tough life in the mountains must be here through the winter. We were making good time to Nikko, until we saw a sign stating the temples and shrines were a further 8km away, a bit odd as our map shows them in the centre of the town. Confusingly enough there was another bit of Nikko that was set well apart from the main town and that is where we needed to get to and to make matters worse it was up hill the whole time, Christine was certainly lacking in enthusiasm for the ‘bonus’ climb. We arrived at midday and went in search of the Youth Hostel which we had booked ahead, the place was a bargain price so would surely be full. On arrival we were somewhat surprised and quickly understood why it was so cheap. The place had excelled itself, it was a dump. Accommodation is expensive in Japan, but it always a good standard, so your grotty cheap Asian accommodation just isn’t available here, but this place had obviously found a niche in the market. Ok, it was cheaper than the hotels we had stayed in, but not much cheaper, yet this place came with as many amenities as my tent. Actually, my tent is better with the amenities, it isn’t so far to the loo. We had booked in for 2 nights, but after just dropping our stuff in the room we had both decided we would only stay for one night. We were in walking distance of the main sights of Nikko though, so were there within minutes. There are a groups of temples and a mausoleum on a steep wooded hillside, all very different. We looked around about half of them during the afternoon saving the rest for the following day.
One of the features of the Youth Hostel that you don’t get with my tent was the friendliness of the hospitality. Checkout was 9am, by 8:50 they were watching over us and looking at the clock, we were glad to leave. Strangely enough the place comes highly recommended in the guide book, I can only assume that they didn’t actually stay there. Having locked the bikes and left them at the edge of town we wandered up the hill to see the remainder of the temples. Surprisingly we had saved the best until last, very atmospheric with steep steps leading through the green and damp forest to beautiful gold covered buildings (photo). To make things even better we were almost alone. Only when we were leaving were the coach loads arriving. When we eventually left we were glad of the 8k climb the previous day as we were heading back to Nikko main town, so it was a downhill breeze for the first 8km. Heading out of Nikko we were in for a pleasant surprise, not only did it continue gently downwards, but we were also passing through a lovely cedar avenue that went on for the best part of 10km. It was like going through a tunnel of tree, made to feel more like a tunnel by the wall that lined the side of the road (photo). Only at road junctions could you see beyond the avenue to the normal countryside. With the end of the avenue came the end of decent countryside, from there on in it was pretty much urban sprawl the rest of the way. We just seemed to pass through town after town, row after row of neon lights, things weren’t looking good for a place to camp. We kept going until we reached the area where the map showed a river a little away to our right. We found a small turning amongst the houses and rode along it to see what we could find. To our surprise within a couple of hundred metres we were looking out across rice fields to a high river bank beyond. We went over to the river bank and soon found a perfect little campsite, right on the bank of the river, but with a sheer 4m drop just inches from the edge of the tent. We could hardly believe how idyllic it was when we had assumed suburbia was all around us. We could hardly believe our timing either, no sooner had we got the tent up than it started to rain. It was just light drizzle but enough to make us wet. During the evening the rain got a little harder. I think I stated in the last blog update that Christine likes to have something to worry about, well tonight was no exception, “What will we do if it keeps raining?” she asked, “I suspect I will just go to sleep” I replied “but feel free to go for a little walk if you like”. I know, I know, sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but she was worried that the rain would cause the bank to collapse and we would end up in the river. She normally worries about the slightest traffic noise, but tonight we were amazed to have got completely away from that, but she still needed something to worry about. I let her beat me at cards, rummy this time, that kept her happy.
It was still drizzling the following day when we left. We knew we had a main road suburbia bash for the last 70km into Tokyo and the drizzle was hardly going to enhance it. The roads were narrow in places which meant that the passing lorries came mighty close, but other than that it was all fairly uneventful. I had always dreaded the ride into Tokyo, I had always assumed it would be big roads, flyovers, big junctions, fast traffic, but it was none of that, just single carriageway the whole way apart from a 10km section of dual carriageway which we even managed to avoid. It could hardly have been easier, there was only one road number to follow too, all we had to do was go straight on at every junction. Christine had been worried that we would become separated and one of us would get lost, but it really was very easy, though hardly pleasurable. Once checked into a hotel we could at last relax. The loo has a strange feature in that it runs water as soon as you sit on it. I guess that is to disguise any potentially embarrassing noises, though I find it a little ironic that some loos have a sink like thing on top of the cistern to save water, yet to counter balance that this thing flushes water away just for the fun of it. We took the subway across town to Shibuya. What a confusing subway map, there are rail lines all over the place, but it is so easy to use. As well as a name for the station and the line, each station has a number. Our nearest in on the Ginza line and is numbered G18, so all you have to do is watch for the station number which appears electronically in the carriage and also numbered on the station…a piece of cake. Shibuya is one of the districts that comes alive at night, a flood of neon lights that adds a strange atmosphere to the place. The place was heaving (photo). By the station is a statue of a dog called Hachico. The story goes that it used to walk every day to the station to meet it master from the train, then one day his master died, yet the dog returned to the station every day for the next 9 years. Now there are seats around the statue and it has become one of Tokyo’s most famous rendezvous landmarks.
Today we visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Parliament building, a massive thing (photo) where over 10,000 people work. We even had a free view from the 45th floor and lunch in the workers canteen on 32nd floor. The canteen is typically Japanese, first you look at the preserved meals in a glass cabinet, then put your money in a ticket vending machine and take you ticket to one of the many counters where is prepared freshly and very quickly. Post lunch was a visit to Yodobashi, rumoured to be the largest camera shop in the world. Well, it may be, but it seems to sell far more lap-top computers than cameras.