Our tour through Japan continued south after Nikko where our morale began to dip for a few days, the rain started almost immediately after we left the temples and it was pretty cold too. I have discovered that although my tolerance for hills has improved dramatically since leaving England, my dislike of being soggy hasn’t at all. I still really struggle with the wet. No matter how much I try to keep my spirits up I can never manage it for long, and my mood is inevitably affected. We also encountered some very unfriendly locals, it doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s always disheartening. Damp, cold and with darkness descending fast we cycled up to a warm and cozy looking café, set back off the road and surrounded by lots of great camping land – it looked like the perfect place to stop for the night…we were very wrong. A combination of miscommunication, desperation and being a little cheeky – despite being told we couldn’t camp outside or near the café we cycled a little further from the café and set up the tent behind some disused outbuildings, fairly confident it would be fine, especially now it was dark and late. After dinner however the very unhappy husband of the woman in the café paid us a visit and was clearly angry about where we had placed our tent, we decided to pack up and be on our way however, before we even had a chance to start packing up the police arrived! This was one of many encounters with the police in Japan, although they were always kind to us it was a little annoying to have to deal with the police regularly, and Japan was by far the country where we had to deal with the police the most! We found it kind of unbelievable that the guy had called the police on us so quickly. After a chat with the police officers they moved us on to the only place nearby that was deemed okay for us to camp – a horrible, concrete layby next to some toilets and vending machines, and a pretty busy main road. It rained heavily all night and as we were on concrete the water pooled under our tent and we woke up the next morning floating in a puddle on our thermarests! Everything was wet and to make it worse it was still raining hard outside – blah. We had breakfast in the porch of the public toilets, not our preferred choice of location but desperate times…
However, as per usual on this trip it didn’t take long for our faith in people to be restored, the very next night, a really kind bike shop owner and his assistant let us camp outside the front of his shop underneath the lean to, to protect us from the rain. He even let us sit in the warmth of his shop, use his kitchen, take a shower and bought us some food – really lovely guys. Things were soon on the up, the clouds cleared for the first time in days and we even got a chance to see the sun! Beautiful mountain views, a great little hidden camping spot and clear starry skies – things change quickly when touring, and the cherry on top of the cake was our next warmshowers host – Katsunori and his lovely wife Yuko. We were immediately made to feel welcome, plied with beer and home-cooked tempura, our stay couldn’t have come at a better time. Katsunori is a retired wooden toy maker and a calm, kind man who has a talent for making his guests comfortable. It was an easy decision to stay an extra night and we spent our day off eating udon noodles, visiting a great onsen up in the mountains and hitting up a local yakitori bar in the evening. The Yakitori place was great fun, seated at the bar, we tried everything on the menu, not all of it was good, I didn’t much like the heart and neither of us were keen on the liver, drank lots of liquor and chatted to the locals, the bar lady seemed intrigued but a little wary of us! Behind the bar were lots of giant bottles of shochu with names scrawled on them in black marker – these were the locals’ drinks! You buy a big bottle of your liquor of choice and then keep it behind the bar drinking from it each time you frequent the joint. I guess the equivalent would be buying my own two-litre bottle of gin from my local, not a bad idea!
Yakitori and Shochu
Yakitori can be literally translated as “grilled chicken” and it is a very popular drinking accompaniment. Grilled in front of you over charcoal, yakitori is basically just bite-sized meat on skewers. It is mainly just chicken, and lots of different parts of the chicken, but you can sometimes get other meat such as beef or pork and occasionally vegetables too. Common yakitori is chicken liver, heart, intestines, thigh and cartilage. The skewers will be served with two different types of sauce – “shio” or “tare”, shio is salty and tare is a sweet (similar to teriyaki) – tare was our favourite. And what better way to wash down your Yakitori than with a delicious glass (or two) of Shochu… Shochu originated in Kyushu but it is now produced all over Japan and in the past 10 years it has made a come back in popularity going from old-fashioned to super trendy. It differs from Sake in a few major ways – it is distilled liquor like brandy and vodka, whereas, sake is fermented like wine. Shochu also has a higher average alcohol content (25 – 37% compared to 13 – 16% for sake) and the main ingredient for sake is only rice whereas shochu can be made from a number of base ingredients; imo (Japanese sweet potato), barley, rice, buckwheat and sugar cane. My favourite drink in Japan was Umeshu – which is made from steeping ume fruits (Japanese plums) in shochu and sugar – it was delicious, and had a sweet and sour taste.
For the past week I had been religiously checking the webcam on the Jigokundani Park website to see if the Snow Monkeys had returned to the park after their trek into the mountainous jungle. The snow monkeys are famous and are often in the top ten things to do in Japan, I was pretty excited to go and see them. The only problem – the climb to the park would be steep and tough on the bikes so we wanted to be sure they were actually there. Annoyingly the monkeys returned to the park a whole eight hours too late for us! We had already left Katsunori’s and started making our way towards Kanazawa when they decided to make an appearance – stupid monkeys.
Cycling to Kanazawa we made our way to the North-west coast and were happy to meet the Sea of Japan again, it wasn’t long since we had been on the other side of the sea when we were on the East coast of Korea! Jagged peaks of the Japanese Alps to the left and the rugged coast to the right – made for some pretty scenic cycling. The weather on the coast was a little damp and pretty cold, luckily we managed to escape the wet for the night after some locals showed us to a cozy garage that we could camp in.
Our day cycling to Toyama is a perfect example of when cycle touring grinds you down and you are aching for a day on the sofa in your pyjamas. The road was busy with some long tunnels – which I am not a fan of, and lots of short but steep climbs, drizzly rain, cold wind, bike problems (Andre’s bottom bracket) and to top it off Andre and I were getting on each others last nerve – perfect! When we arrived into Toyama we couldn’t find our host for the night and after cycling around in circles for some time we found him. Tired and fed up Taka’s house was a calm and welcoming sanctuary. A timber, open space that Taka designed and built himself, the house is full of interesting, old instruments and great examples of Japanese innovation and engineering. Two of my favourite Japanese inventions (I am assuming they are Japanese because I have never seen them anywhere else) are; a fridge door that you can open from whichever side you please, and a butter plastic container with a hole in the lid so you can leave the knife sticking out of the tub – so simple, yet so useful! Taka himself is a serene and quiet man, yet friendly, and the frustrations and our weariness just melted away.
After a day of sunshine and some unexpected acts of kindness from strangers and friends we arrived into Kanazawa in good spirits. We decided to treat ourselves for the evening and we hit a yakitori bar in the town that has a reputation for the best fried chicken around, after eating an embarrassingly large number of wings for two people and a few glasses of shochu and sour plum we felt it was best to leave before we bankrupted ourselves. Kanazawa managed to avoid any serious damage from bombing during WWII and so many of its historic areas are still intact, two of the most interesting are the Nagamachi (Samurai) district and the Higashi Chaya (Geisha entertainment) district. Nagamachi is very quaint with narrow, winding, cobbled streets, earthern walls and timber buildings. Many of the old warrior residences are open to the public as museums to explore. The Higashi Chaya district (Chaya literally means tea house) is one of the best-preserved in Japan full of beautiful and ornate wooden two story buildings. The upper floor was used as the entertaining area and has sliding wooden shutters, and the ground floor is faced with extremely fine latticework called ‘Kaga lattice’. Kanazawa is also famous for its gold producing 99% of Japan’s gold leaf. To make gold leaf you mix silver and copper with gold to achieve a thickness of around 0.0001 metres. The best golden leaf is so thin you can see the other side of it when you hold it up to the light – this leaf is known as Kanazawa haku. They put gold leaf in everything here including their face moisturiser, tea, and even their ice cream!
Japanese gardens are famous but not something we know little about so we took the opportunity to go visit one here in Kanazawa. Kenrokuen Garden is considered one of Japan’s great three garden and took 160 years to be completed. It is so highly regarded as it combines the six attributes considered necessary for a perfect landscape garden; spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, watercourses and panoramas. An older Japanese man who worked at the garden offered to be our free guide, he informed us he had to take this job after he retired as his wife was sick of him hanging around the house all the time! The garden was beautiful especially with all the autumnal colours, waterways with crystal clear water and giant bonsai trees. One place we sadly missed (you need to book in advance) but we would highly recommend is the Ninja temple (Myoru-ji). Despite its name the temple has nothing to do with Ninjas. It is a Nichiren temple (a Buddhist sect), built in 1585 and it is architecturally incredible – full of hidden rooms, trap doors and escape pits, with 23 rooms linked by 29 staircases! In the Edo period the construction of buildings taller than three stories was prohibited and the temple from the outside looks like a two-story building but it is actually four with a seven layer internal structure. So disappointing to not be able to step inside, as it really isn’t anything special viewed from the outside.
Out of Kanazawa we followed the coast for a while before heading up and over the Japanese Alps, it was scenic riding with misty islands dotting the shoreline to the West and mountains rising up to the East. The climb to mountain pass was fairly short and gradual and we even encountered some monkeys running across the road into the forests. After a long descent we made it to Lake Biwa, where we are treated to an empty campsite on the lakeside – very picturesque and the lake lapping the shore is a soothing lullaby.
After another day riding around the lake we reach Kyoto. Exploring this city is intense, everywhere you turned there seemed to be a UNESCO heritage site and the guidebook was packed with interesting places to discover – far too much for one short trip. Even after we extended our stay we still couldn’t cover even all the major sights! We were lucky enough to be hosted by the wonderful Yoko. A friend of a warmshowers host who kindly let us stay in her small apartment and never complained even when our grubby panniers were wedged into every nook and cranny and our belongings spilled out all over the place! Yoko told us about some lesser-known things to do in Kyoto such as the massive flea market, which was much like the flea markets back home except here all the junk was exotic and the trinkets more unusual. She showed us around her neighborhood, which is one of the oldest Geisha districts in the city, three famous Geisha still live there. Yoko also introduced us to one of our favourite Japanese inventions – the Kotatsu. A low wooden table covered with a heavy blanket or duvet which the table top is then placed on top of and underneath the table is a heater which is often part of the table structure. You sit around the Kotatsu and place the duvet over your legs and the heater warms your whole body – it is so cozy. In Japan the older houses are quite drafty and cold with inadequate heating (much like England) and these tables get you thorough the winter months. Yoko told us she has often fallen asleep under the table!
There is a lot to write about Kyoto so I will try to just mention a few of our highlights. Arashiyama is a large temple complex with a beautiful garden, sadly it felt a little too busy for us to appreciate its calming and Zen properties. The best part of the complex was the bamboo forest, which was incredible and unlike any other forest I have been in. The bamboo towers above you and is so thick that the light doesn’t quite reach all the areas of the forest and the distribution gives it a strange, otherworldly feel. I think the strangeness of the forest lies in the discord between the green and natural feel of the bamboo and the uniformity of the bamboo – each tree is not varied in the same way as other forests – it almost looks like something man made and industrial – it is both striking and pleasing to the eye. The network of roughly 1000 brightly coloured orange Torii gates winding up the mountain at Fushimi temple was also pretty spectacular to wander through. A fun game to play was trying to get a shot with no one else in it!! Almost impossible to do unless you walk further up the mountain where the crowds thin out or you get very lucky! The gates are donated by businesses and the shrine is the place to go if you need to pray for success in your career or for your business. Not sure there is a gate big enough to salvage my career but we bought a mini gate and wrote out a Japanese prayer on it just incase! Outside the temple we were on the hunt for the original fortune cookies, I had heard a podcast about how fortune cookies despite what everyone thought originated from Japan and were not a Chinese-American invention. Called Tsujiura senbei (fortune crackers) they were apparently first created right here in Kyoto outside of Fushimi temple. It was a little tricky to track down the cookies as they are not a tourist attraction…yet and so there was no English signage. Eventually we found the small family-run bakery and there were two, old and very grumpy men making the cookies using something like a waffle maker. They were very strict on no photos allowed! The cookies are the same shape as the ones you find in the West but larger, browner and less sweet. They have a nuttier taste as their batter contains sesame and miso rather than vanilla and butter. Yoko translated our fortunes for us in the evening, it turns out they are less cheesy and positive than the Chinese ones, the gist of mine…Bad luck followed by some good luck – not too terrible I guess.
One story (of a few I found) describes how fortune cookies became associated with Chinese cuisine during WWII. The Japanese were not so popular at this time in America and many Japanese citizens were rounded up and sent to prisoner camps. The Japanese that did remain opened ‘Chinese’ restaurants instead and therefore the cookies became known as Chinese.
In the evening we made our way to Pontocho Alley, we were told dusk was the best time to spot the elusive real life Geisha leaving her home and travelling to work. I didn’t really expect a sighting, as apparently it is pretty rare – but low and behold André noticed a Geisha scuttling down an alleyway and she emerged right in front of us. I was so over excited that I lost my cool and chased after her to take a photo – she did not seem pleased and I felt a little bad – but it was still a great experience, sadly followed by not such a great experience. A reminder of Japan’s isolated past and the occasional lingering ethnocentrism came in an unpleasant encounter with a bar owner who told us politely but firmly that he didn’t want foreigners in his bar. We were a little upset as it is quite unusual for us to be met with such hostility and we ended up taking solace in a British bar – very sad!
Our last day in Kyoto was spent taking things a little easier before we hit the road again. The city had fully absorbed us and our senses were overloaded with the sights that surrounded us.
Our route from Kyoto to Tokyo took us around Mt Fuju. Cycling around this iconic mountain was one of my favourite parts of Japan, from our first glimpse to our final farewell as it disappeared from view we were constantly in awe. We were lucky enough to have its company for roughly three – four days, so we got to see it at all times of the day and night. The weather was incredible and we got to see the mountain completely clear of clouds against a blue sky for the majority of the time. The weather was really cold but twice we managed to find a camping spot with a great view of Mt Fuji. A trip first for us, we broke and entered into a small wooden cabin on a small lake. We actually didn’t break in as it had been left unlocked and was part of a campsite that was empty during the winter. The cabin meant we were a little warmer in the evening than sitting outside the tent to eat dinner, but it was still freezing cold. The cabin had a huge glass window so lying in our sleeping bags on the tatami mat floor we could gaze up at the stars surrounding the peak of Mt Fuji – what an incredible view, the best things in life really are often free! After a cold, restless night, we awoke before sunrise, partly in anticipation, and partly because we were just so cold. When we left our cabin we were surprised to see the place swarming with an assortment of tourists and their very large cameras. We joined the gang and watched the sunrise and the light hit the face of the mountain, very peaceful and a beautiful way to start the day. We were keen to start cycling to warm ourselves up a little, so we hit the road and continued our cycle around Fuji San. We spent another day and night with the mountain in full view and spent our second night camping on another lakeside this time on the outskirts of a small town. The following morning we were lucky enough to enjoy another bright, clear sunrise over Mt Fuji, our final farewell, as we began cycling East towards the bright lights of Tokyo we turned our back on our constant companion for the past few days and heading over the hills it fell from view entirely.
Reaching Tokyo felt like a momentous occasion in many ways but it also strangely felt anti-climatic. It was just another day on the bikes and it wasn’t even a very beautiful ride as we were cycling in the outskirts of a major city. There was no fanfare or welcoming parade, and we both felt we could see the appeal of cycling an entire loop of the world and finishing your trip in your home country. It would have been nice to celebrate the end of the trip with our loved ones. Having said all of that, we did feel a sense of pride looking back over what we had accomplished and what a great city to end the journey in.
It was a house full at our final warm showers host of the entire trip. Richard, an American airline pilot, his wife, two lovely sons Evan and Gabe and their friend, kindly hosted us in Tokyo for the week. Evan even gave up his room for us – what a dude! The city is vast, busy and very modern; it looks a little like you have just arrived on the set of a ‘70s sci-fi film. It is not beautiful in the same way as Kyoto was but does have a buzz of excitement about it and we were keen to explore as much as possible. We ate a lot of great food in Tokyo (Udon, gyoza, sushi and ramen) always seeking out the cheap, hidden places.
One irritating thing about Tokyo was the bike parking, you couldnt just leave your bike anywhere as there is designated bike parking, which you have to pay for. Sometimes the bike parking is not very convenient or there are not enough of them and you wander around for ages frustratingly trying to find somewhere to leave your bike. Another cycle tourer staying at Richard’s had his bike taken by the authorities and impounded for parking it somewhere he was not allowed to – it was a nightmare to get back.
The highlights of Tokyo for us included seeing the sunset over the city from the top of the Metropolitan building – very beautiful and completely free. We wanted to watch a sumo wrestling match but sadly none were taking place in Tokyo whilst we were there so we decided to visit a sumo beya (home and training school for sumo wrestlers) to watch training instead. It was a little tricky to arrange but really worth it – this was my absolute favourite thing we did in the city. It is free to visit a beya but you need to call them the night before to inform them of your visit and you have to speak in Japanese! Was a little nerve wracking but good for me to be forced to speak some of the Japanese I have been learning! You can click here to read our short article on how to visit a sumo beya without paying for an expensive tour. We had to sit very still and quiet whilst watching them train and it was pretty awesome to be immersed in a culture that we know nothing really about. Trying to pick up what was going on was interesting. We visited the fish market with a friend of Andre’s mum, Misa – a very sweet lady who kindly came to meet us in the city. The fish market is best seen very early in the morning and we got there a little late as it was all closing down, however it was still an experience. It is the biggest fish market in the world and it will be soon moving to a new location so we were lucky to get to see it in its original location. It was a strange place with a mixture of really friendly fishermen selling their wares and some really grumpy old guys who clearly hated tourists! They have two separate times for visiting, one is for people buying fish and the other is for tourists, I felt a little annoyed about this before we went but on arrival I soon realized how sensible this is and I am glad we stuck to the tourist time slot instead of trying to sneak in earlier. The fish market is packed, there is water and fish innards all over the floor, forklift trucks darting about and there is not much space so you are constantly having to watch your surroundings and try not to get knocked over – it is a little nuts and not the calmest place to peruse! The smells, sounds and sights of the market are also pretty intense, seeing the enormous tuna was impressive, I knew they were big but not that big! If seeing tuna is your thing, there is a tuna auction at the market very, very early in the morning and they allow a small number of tourists to come and watch but you have to get up at something ridiculous like 3am so needless to say we never made it! The final place we really loved in Tokyo was Shibuya – yes we know it is not exactly off the beaten track and it is super touristy but it was a lot of fun and we went there several times to shop for gifts, drink in the bars and generally just wander the streets enjoying the atmosphere. It is like Oxford Street but on steroids, your senses take a real battering from all the bright flashing lights and noise. We found a great restaurant which offered ‘all you could drink’ for a set price – which considering the amount we drank it was a bargain and we even played in the amusement arcade for a while – but didn’t win a cuddly toy! We cycled across the famous crossing (featured in lots of films including Lost in Translation) and also crossed a couple of times milling with the crowds. It was fun to watch the crossing from the Starbucks above and see all the hundreds of people merge into one and then come out the other side. Tokyo was a blast and a great place to end our epic journey.
Flying home for Christmas my stomach felt like a washing machine. I was sad to say goodbye to Japan, to André and to the lifestyle I had grown accustomed to and loved; Eager to spend the holiday season with friends and family; and nervous about returning to London and the challenge of adjusting to life off the bike again. Although it is undoubtedly the end of an era, after cycling for 18 months, almost 20,000 kms through 24 different countries, we both feel that this journey has changed us for the better and we are excited about the many more adventures ahead.
We are planning to post more articles over the coming months about different aspects of the trip, so keep an eye out for those. We hope if anything this blog may inspire you to seize the day and make it happen – whatever ‘it’ is.
“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” ― Pat Conroy