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17) November 21th, Japan - the high road to the far east

Japan, at last! And a language I can comunicate in... but it kind of takes the fun out of things when you can say the word "toilet" instead of imaginative gestures.

Forgoing a full-torso tattoo, instead I celebrate by meeting up with old friends who pamper me for a week. Yes, the real adventure is over now, but Shanghai is not the end of the trip, no matter how tempting it is to linger in the Kyushu countryside, getting fat, and boring my hosts with endless stories "ahh yes, I remember a day in Tajikistan....".

But this final stage to Tokyo is no rush over main roads and through major cities. Instead, I've been deliberately taking my time to try and get a idea of "real" Japan, and perhaps understand a little of what draws me to this place. So - only minor mountain roads, as much as possible, to the capital. The last week has been spent clawing my way up and down steep mountain passes, west to east, through central Shikoku. Slow progress, but fantastic scenery with the autumn leaves in colour, and a quiet, contemplative side of Japan rarely seen. There really are gods in these here mountains...


27th to 31st october - waiting for the ferry, Shanghai: Where on earth did the time go ? I had a relaxed farewell drink with Taiichi (the Japanese cyclist I'd met in the Gobi), who had arrived in Shanghai a couple days earlier. Then a friend flew in from Tokyo, and another arrived the day after, and before I knew it, the week had disappeared into a haze of bars & clubs. The sights were done half-heartedly, my favourite being the "Bund tunnel", a tram under the river, passing through a psycadelic tunnel of lights and special effects. Nicely tacky. There are relatively few cultural and historical sights, but I thought that being a city of "new money" and commerce, the night-life would something else. But it was a bit of a disappointment - a few small bars & clubs on a single, slightly seedy street, drinks as expensive as Tokyo, and a definite "no money, no honey" feel to the place...

1st to 3rd november: I like ferries. There's not really a lot you can do on them, so any lethargy and laziness is not your fault. Two days to Osaka and I was only just starting to get into the swing of things! The passengers were a mixture of some Japanese tourists, a few backpackers and a large group of young Chinese women, cheap labour for component assembly lines in Japan. Buying a drink from a vending machine, I calculated that a can of coke was now the price of a night's accomodation in rural China.

As usual with a bike (are we more trustworthy ?), I was waved through customs with just a cursory baggage search, while the backpackers next to me were having the contents of their toiletry bag emptied on the counter. I walked the bike another three metres and ... I was in Japan !

Clean, orderly and outrageously polite. I felt dirty and uncouth, and I was sure my bicycle tires were soiling the spotless tarmac outside. My brother & his wife had treated me to a night in the Hyatt as a congratulations present for actually getting this far. Dressed in my stained & dirty cycling clothing, rolling my bike up the marble lobby to the back granite reception desk I again felt dirty and uncouth, and would have been more comfortable perhaps checking into the park near the ferry terminal. Still, a lovely room, and my brother had set up a tab during my stay! I switched on the TV and flicked through the selection of pay-as-you-view movies. "Sure hope this isn't itemised on the final bill" I thought, as I made my selection. I felt dirty and uncouth...

Taking a subway to downtown Osaka in the evening, I was faintly surprised that no policeman was shaking me down for bribes. I was again amazed at the orderliness of things - the way people waited rigidly at a pedestrian crossing for the lights to change, and the way the silent cars (no horns!) used lanes rather than gaps. Like China, loads of restaurants, but so much more variety in cuisine, appearance, and an actual thought to interior ambience that differed from a few chairs & tables on a littered concrete floor under a panel of strip lighting. So what if everything was ten times as expensive - I loved it!

Overnight in Osaka (JAPAN!).

4th to 5th november, Fri/Sat: Opting for a late-checkout to make the most of the luxury that has long been denied to me, I left in the evening for the domestic ferry terminal. I was to board a night-ferry for Beppu, Kyushu - the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan. Lining up to board with my bike, waiting infront of clean and shiny, chrome-plated Japanese "Hino" trucks, I felt the first twinge of sadness. The realisation struck me that the end of this amazing trip was now in sight, and before long I'd be back in a normal life with all the pressures and stress that goes with it. With a heavy heart I boarded the ferry.

It was a full ferry, with car-loads of Japanese going to Beppu, a famous "onsen" or hot-spring resort. In the morning, the older folks disembarked in a uniform of identical tracksuits, shoes and baseball-hats issued by their travel-agent, while the youngsters lined up in the bathroom, putting in contact lenses and preening themselves with "Nudy" hairspray or "Mandom" hairgel. Yep, I thought, I'm back in Japan alright...

And here starts the fifth and final stage of my trip.

Looking at the town from the ferry port, it was steeply hemmed in by mountains, still showing their autumn leaves. My destination for the day was Yufuin - somewhere on the other side of these mountains - where I was to meet some very good friends, who had offered to put me up (put up with me?) for a week or so. But there was no obvious way round these mountains - they enclosed Beppu right up to the sea. Sure enough, the only way was over - a steep 800m climb. A fair bit of traffic (it was the weekend) but the hills were green, dotted with the oranges and yellows of autumn colours - wonderful. It was strange, though, cycling in Japan again after such a long break. The last seven months seemed like a dream.

Ohhhh... and my first onsen bath in ages - two hours of hot-water bliss, interupted only by the occasional tourist entering to take photos (this is Japan, after all!). The friends turned up, as did the beer, and that was the start of my Lazy Week in Kyushu.

Distance: 27km. Overnight in Yufuin (Japan).

5th to 13th november: Friends visiting from the UK - Yuki, Kuljit & their daughter Jaya - had to leave for Tokyo the next day. But I didn't, fully intending to milk dry the hospitality of my hosts Jeff, Eri & their two-year old Hugh, as much as I could. An old Japanese farmhouse in a constant state of renovation, with a view of nothing but paddy-fields and mountains... a warm stove in a cosy kitchen... freshly baked bread and home-cooked meals... a selection of alcohol of varying lethality - no, I wasn't going anywhere for a while yet. While Jeff & Eri worked, and Hugh was at playgroup, I would spend an astounding amount of time doing nothing. Occasionally a neighbour would suddenly appear next to me at the kitchen table, and we would stay that way, looking at each other for three or four hours.

I had a go at chopping some firewood at one point, but I think we were all in general agreement that I was crap, so I didn't have to do even that anymore. My hosts had said that I was welcome to stay a month, or two, or even three. But by now I think they were worried that indeed I would ...

Well, time was pressing, my new bike parts had arrived, and the route decided. No excuses left. My final night, and the farewell drinks had the typical Jeff flourish to it. His parents-in-law had invited us all to a posh chinese restaurant in Fukuoka city (I had to fight the urge, of course, to hawk and spit on the floor between courses). After a nice meal, Eri, her parents and Hugh retired to their appartment, leaving Jeff and myself to find an Irish pub...

We got back late and I, foiled by the number of buttons on the state-of-the-art toilet, somehow pressed the emergency alarm. By the time I'd figured how to switch the bloody thing off, Hugh was crying and Jeff's mother-in-law was awake and had appeared just in time to see him rush to the bathroom, pale-faced, head over the toilet bowl...

14th november, Mon: The Tallon mark successfully left on the Anderson family, I set out, rather shakily, towards the coast to get to a ferry port, where I was to get a ferry to Shikoku - the smallest of Japan's four main islands. Shikoku is one of the least developed regions of Japan, with unspoilt valleys, sleepy mountain villages, and a 1200 year-old Buddist pilgimage route covering 88 temples (many high up in the mountains) and the best part of a thousand miles. And apparently there isn't a "7-11" convenience store there yet. My plan was to take a path west to east through the mountainous middle of Shikoku, aiming for the torturously winding, quiet mountain roads.

However, the route through northern Kyushu to the ferry port is heavy with traffic for the most part, with a few breaks through minor roads and small towns. An abundance of dry-cleaners, hairdressers, "snacks" (hostess bars) and "pachinko parlours" (slot machines) lined the road. This drab urban scenery is common throughout small-town industrial Japan, and was something I planned to avoid from now on.

Distance: 89km. Overnight on ferry (Japan).


15th november, Tue: Very little sleep on the ferry due to the friggin' announcements... "the shop is opening", "the shop is closing", "don't jump from the ferry", "only 6 hours to Shikoku", "only 4 hours to Shikoku", "Get up! Get up! Get up!". Jeeeezuz. The ferry arrived in Matsuyama early morning - it was dark and cold and I tried to get some sleep in the ferry terminal, until an old bloke prodded me awake and told me to sleep upright like the guy behind me. There was nobody else there. Later that morning I cycled into the city and met up with Taiichi who was visiting his parents in Matsuyama, and who kindly invited me to stay at their house that night. We went to Dogo onsen - a sprawling three-story building and the oldest onsen resort in Japan. But the baths themselves were too bloody hot - designed to get through tourists as quickly as possible. Went shopping for a bicycle helmet - after 14,000km without wearing one, through some of the most notoriously dangerous roads in the world, I now felt strangely compelled to go with the "safety" theme of Japan...

Distance: 24km. Overnight in Matsuyama (Japan).

16th november, Wed: A cold and overcast day as I pointed my bike towards a big bloody mountain range. The first climb of the day, a 720m warm-up wasn't too bad at all. This was a mild taster of what was to come. The roads were mainly deserted, but even a complete lack of traffic doesn't necessarily mean a lack of road-expansion: I passed huge tunnel under construction in the mountain side. Looking at my map, it was headed nowhere. Another fat wad of yen in a local polititian's back pocket.

I passed ancient ladies, their backs bent double from decades of sowing crops, still labouring away in small fields. It was easy to forget that I'm in Japan. A figure dressed in white with a wide conical hat greeted me as he walked along the road - an "o-henro-san", a pilgrim laboriously walking the 88 temple circuit. Indeed, this road did look familiar to me as I recalled the three weeks I'd spent doing the same cicruit by mountain bike, over five years ago. By foot, it could take months.

As I climbed towards the gorge the autumn leaves became more and more vivid - absolutely stunning. The gorge was a sea of orange and yellow with it's river gushing a luminous blue and green below, the colours only slightly dulled by the dark grey clouds. At the head of the gorge there was a hotel and a campground. I would have the campground all to myself, but something stopped me pulling out the tent. SureCit was very cold. And it did look like it was going to rain, definitely. Oh, and I really need a good sleep for tomorrow's long climb. And didn't it look so lonely... yep, after a week in Shanghai and ten days in Kyushu, I realised that I'd gone SOFT!

Bugger this camping lark, I said to myself, as I headed to the hotel, a warm bath, and a heated toilet seat.

Distance: 72km. Overnight at Omogo Gorge (Japan).

17th november, Thu: Very cold, and as I climbed towards the 1500m pass snow was in the trees and by the side of the road. If I'd come here a day earlier I'd have been in the middle of it. The road was narrow, deserted and winding, with spectacular views over the valley. But at this elevation the autumn leaves had long gone. Descending the other side, my sweat freezing on me, I followed a river down a long valley. From the side of the road there were steep narrow lanes leading up into dark forboding forest. The people I did pass were all over the the age of 75, working their little patch of field. I passed a waterwheel, creaking away, still working after goodness knows how long.

Tonight I made it to Motoyama and found a rambling old "ryokan" (japanese inn). I'd passed one up in the valley, nestled beneath the trees some 30km back but had reluctantly decided it was too soon to stop for the day. The one I was now staying in was superb. A courtyard in the middle, cramped, steep wooden stairs and corridors leading off in all directions, mysterious doors, "shoji" (paper screens) partitioning rooms, the original lead tiled roof at each story, and not a sound to be heard other than the sqeak of the dark wooden floorboards, and the occasional "woody-woodpecker" laugh of the owner, from somewhere on the ground floor...

On TV that night was a "variety show" of the type common to Japanese TV. An "animal psychic" had been called to find out the problem with an elephant in a zoo. He was sad, apparently, after being seperated from his previous keeper, Randy. So they put a lifesize picture of "Randy" infront of the elephant, played his voice, and the elephant swung his trunk around, caressing the picture and the tape-player. All the TV personalities or "talents" back in the studio were blubbering away like unfed babies... I worry, I really do, about the future of this country.

Distance: 97km. Overnight in Motoyama (Japan).

18th november, Fri: Cycling through Japan is of course very different from cycling through Central Asia. In the latter, you immediately stand out and people are not shy about stopping you - even forcibly! - to find out more. The whole experience is centered around interactions with the locals at every point during the day. This makes for some great memories, but can also get pretty tiring. In China people are generally less outgoing, allowing you some breathing space, but will stare and stare and stare at you, which is not incredibly relaxing. Japan, more so even than Europe, leaves you alone. No interuptions and no staring. Any gestures or comments are done discreetly - I guess, as I haven't noticed any. No hassle... but can leave the impression that the locals are a little "cold". The focus instead is on the intimate scenery of the narrow valleys, the sleepy villages and the many small details that define Japan... a mountain shrine, a "jizo" statue with it's red bib by the side of roads, offering good luck to travellers, a laughing group of old ladies dressed in kimono, the sound of a "shakuhachi" bamboo flute...

It was a stiff climb to the Iya valley today, but again the scenery made up for it. Barely 60 years ago this region was still isolated from it's neighbours - the only way in and out was by foot. Now, however, there's a good (albeit narrow) road carrying tourist traffic to the area's number one attraction, "kazurabashi", a bridge built out of wood and vines. Trying to get a picture, I was continuously elbowed out of the way by a rude, loud, squat late-middle-aged woman with pom-poms hanging from her pink and gold jersey - the "obasan", a unique japanese phenomenan...

Early afternoon I turned onto a narrow mountain road and headed up to "Chiiori". This is an old "kayabuki" (thatched roof) japanese farmhouse which had been restored 16 years ago by the author Alex Kerr. Although he himself has moved on, the house ("the chiiori project") is looked after by groups of volunteers, both foreign and japanese. The location is an outrageously high elevation looking down to the valley floor far below. A beautiful house, but I was the only guest that night, outnumbered four to one by volunteers, two of whom talked nothing but "project gossip", with occasional flashes of Benny Hill type humour. But the trip to the nearby onsen was superb and made up for it.

Distance: 58km. Overnight in Iya Valley (Japan).

19th november, Sat: Friggin' freezing this morning - got up early, ate all the bread and got the hell out of there. It was a dark cloudy day. I passed quiet, seemingly deserted hamlets perched precariously over the river or tucked in under the boughs of the forest, maybe a lonely farmhouse far up the mountain-side on the other side of the valley, and well-dressed scarecrows in an unnervingly close pastiche of real life. I'd see an occasional old lady making her way along the road - she'd pause slightly, and politely bow as I cycled past.

Outstanding scenery as I cross two passes, one 1500m high. A narrow lane all day, winding up and down through the valley, clinging to the sides, sometimes taking me through dark tunnels of trees, or across open cliffside looking over wide vistas, or delicately through small shady villages of just a few homes. F**kin' freezing mind you.

Towards dusk I had an "in tune with everything" experience, descending the long downhill from the last pass through the darkening valley, winding steeply down through deep forest, past old wooden houses hidden in shadow, some with a soft-light glowing from within, others in a dignified state of decay. The only sound was the whistling of the wind past my ears, the river below, and the sharp squeal of my brakes at the approach to each corner, echoing in the otherwise silent valley. Times like this you really do believe there are mountain gods sitting in those shrines. That evening I found a campground near another onsen, to perfectly round off the day.

Distance: 91km. Overnight in Kamiyama Onsen (Japan).

19th november, Sun: A short ride to the city of Tokushima today, to catch a ferry to Kii Peninsula, and the beginning of the second-half of my Japan stage. Met a british guy coming the other way on his regular sunday morning ride - naturally he invited me in for a "cuppa" and we had lunch with his wife & baby daughter. I boarded the ferry later that afternoon, and found a quiet corner to review my route, while it seems the entire passenger population other than me sat around in large groups on the carpet and proceeded to get completely pissed.

It was dark when I arrived in the city, and instead of staying in a "capsule hotel" as planned (they didn't have a capsule for my bike), I stayed in an old & worn "business hotel", with a lovely quirky old lady at reception. It was strangely reassuring to see the nicotine-stained walls, faded plastic plants, and an ashtray at every corner...

Distance: 44km (and ferry). Overnight in Wakayama (Japan)

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