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18) December 1st, Japan - Tokyo! The final report.


The final week on the road eased me gently back into the concrete jungle - mountain villages turning into towns, towns into cities, country lanes into busy highways - so Tokyo was not such a sudden shock to the system. But a champagne reception, a large crowd of old friends and a million handshakes made me realise the finality of the situation: 18 countries, over 15,000 kilometres and almost 8 months later, this little adventure of mine was finally over.

It certainly is nice to no longer have to worry about where I'm going to stay for the night, what I can find to eat, whether I have enough water or not, if I can communicate with the locals, or how I should handle the next policeman asking me for a "present". And it's a relief that I no longer have to do my sightseeing dressed in ridiculous bicycle clothing. But I do feel a little sad, a little empty.

Surprisingly, my memory of the last eight months is already fading fast - well, that's Turkmenistan vodka for you, I guess - yet when I read my notes and look at the photographs, it all comes back to me: the incredible array of people I've met, the landscapes I've cycled through, the different ways of life I've barely touched on... I caught a travel program on TV the other day, someone trotting lesiurely around south east asia, and then a magazine article on an exotic island location. "Now that would be great by bike" I thought to myself, subconsiously reaching for the world-map, and a bottle of painkillers...

Well, next week I'll be on a flight to london. I'll walk out of the appartment, turn right for the subway station, and in less than 24 hours I'll be back where I started, in London, feet up on the sofa, cup of tea in my hand.

But who knows - next time, or perhaps the time after that, maybe I won't buy that plane ticket. Maybe I won't get on that subway. Maybe, just maybe, I'll get on my bicyle and, instead, Turn Left for London .......


21st november, Mon: My plan was to spend the next few days cutting across the Kii Peninsula... a higher concentration of villages and towns compared to Shikoku, and none of the remoteness and occasional sense of isolation one felt, but nevertheless, some wonderful scenery. But getting out of Wakayama city was a nightmare of traffic which forced my hand (my wheel?) to take the long mountain road via Koya-san.

Koya-san is a sacred mountain harbouring the centre of Japanese Shingon Buddism in a sprawling temple complex at the top. This would be the third time I've climbed this thing on bike (a lot of repenting needed for my sins...), and the first time by this route. A clear blue sky and the sun overhead didn't do much to take the chill out of the air, but the views more than made up for it.

The road follows a very narrow and steep valley - the old tiled roofs of the houses were often level with the road - and the slopes are overflowing with foilage. Idyllic laid-back scenes of rustic old farmhouses, paddy fields, deep shadows and an occasional solitary farmer picking kaki (persimons) off heavily laden trees with a bamboo pole. Some incredibly steep sections - as steep as anywhere I've experienced on this trip.

On reaching Koya-san, it was, even midweek in late autumn, full of tourist traffic and pilgrims. This place must really generate some money. I've stayed overnight at a temple lodging before, and it ain't cheap. However, I do like lingering in Koya; the temples and the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi (the monk who introduced the Shingon teachings to Japan, 1200 years ago) do eminate a sense of peacefulness despite the crowds.

A young monk driving a new imported top-of-the-range Jeep drove past, and gave me a look of distain. I remembered the chat I'd had with an old Japanese man on the ferry from Shanghai: "..it's all about money - people can bankcrupt themselves paying the fees these people demand for funerals, rememberances, and so on. Have you ever seen a poor monk ?"... I decided to make the most of the remaining daylight and continue on past Koya.

A fabulous descent on an incredibly narrow, little-used road, snaking down the valley, the clear blue river gushing over rapids on the left, sharp granite rock-face on the right, and all enclosed by an amazing, overbearing mass of green, orange and red trees. Wow! I almost wet myself.

Distance: 80km. Overnight in Hashimoto (Japan)

22nd november, Tue: Friggin' cold again this morning, and especially icy on my face. I realised that I have to be especially of drivers around here - I saw one woman applying her makeup with a handheld mirror while casually crossing an intersection; another one almost knocked me off the road because she had to stop exactly at a sign which said "Stop Here". The first stretch was a horribly busy trunk road, which I needed to go on to turn off onto a minor road gently following the path of a practically dry riverbed (dams..) up the valley. This road wound through the old "shotengai" (shopping streets) of small villages, saw-mills (leaving a scent of pine in the air) and eventually into open valley. Many of the wooden houses off the road were quite old, in well-kept condition and often with their original roofing.

After an impromtu tour of a mushroom farm (test me later), I was off on a stiff climb, followed by a long shallow descent. I kept going until it was almost dark before looking for somewhere to stay. No room at the inn, so instead camped at a riverside park, under a clear sky. It's gonna be a cold one, I thought to myself...

Distance: 119km. Overnight near Iitaka (Japan)

23rd november, Tue: Bloody 'ell, it really was cold. Woke about 3am, only drifting back off to sleep once I'd found a suitable foetal position to keep a little warm. When I got up later that morning there was a thick frost covering everything - quite beautiful infact. It was an easy day towards the coast, passing lots of villages with rows & rows of neatly trimmed bushes - this is a major tea-growing region. A gorgeous day, and once I'd got out of the hills it was quite warm. I made my way to Ise - the centre of Shintoism, the traditional "religion" of Japan. There are two main shrines. The first, the outer shrine, I went to see. Call me old-fashioned, but I was hoping for large intimidating structures, incredible architecture, maybe a few devils & demons, possibly a fire-breathing dragon. But it was very simple, just broad gravel paths surrounded by trees and a few fenced off wooden buildings. There was only a trickle of people coming and going.

In contrast, the Inner shrine was the main draw. Traffic jams, dozens of tour-buses parked outside, hundreds and hundreds of tourists (it was a national holiday today)... I wouldn't find much spiritual enlightenment here, so I decided not to bother. Instead, I did my laundry, stripping off in the laundrette and hiding behind a corner until it was finished. It was the first clothes wash since Shanghai and I was quite tired of smelling like old man and park bushes. I'd also noticed that dogs had been getting strangely more aggressive every day.

Took a pleasant road to Toba in the late afternoon and boarded a ferry for Irago, a narrow peninsula at the bottom of Aichi prefecture. Stayed in a friendly B&B - the landlady was joking with a customer as to who was going to introduce their daughter to me first (oh, the cruelty). The took a picture of me & my bike to feature on their homepage, but I'm not sure that's part of a sound business plan...

Distance: 65km (+ ferry). Overnight in Irago (Japan)

24th november, Wed: Another clear blue sky, the coastal sunshine burning that little bit brighter than the mountains, and warmer. There's a bike path that runs along a lot of the coast and when I could find it, the going was quite pleasant. When I couldn't, it was the main road, getting busier and busier the further east I got. On one beach section, people were practising with their four-wheel drives out on the dunes. There was a nice sunset as I arrived at Omaezaki Cape, and I stood a long time looking out to the Pacific Ocean. I reflected that there is barely a week left before I'm finished. Time is running out for a love-interest, I said to myself, to make this story really complete.
Will have to consider paying for it at my next stop.

Distance: 146km. Overnight in Omaezaki (Japan)

25th november, Thu: Last night's TV: a cooking program, a few dairy products and ten young female "talents" (minor TV personalities) in short-shirts excitedly watching the proceedings through binoculars from 3 metres away. Gasps of amazement, outrageous moans of ecstacy, frantic shouts of "yes! oh yes! ooooooh yes!"... I worry, I really do, about the future of this country.

Very warm setting off this morning, and busy with traffic now that I'm cycling through the massive conurbation that surrounds Shizuoka city. I did try the bike-path several times but it would tease you away from the coastline and suddenly stop in the middle of nowhere, dumping you in some village and leaving you to find your own way back to the main road. But there was a really nice section where the steep narrow road clinged to the cliff-face on the left, with the sea far below to the right.

Today a Japanese driver waved to me for the first time.

Distance: 85km. Overnight in Shizuoka (Japan)

26th to 28th november - resting up in Shizuoka: A lazy long weekend with old friends Jim & Teena, and their two and a half-year old son, Hayden. I'd learnt to count from 1 to 10 pretty well by monday... great to see everyone again and also quite pleased that this time, for a change, it was me coming back to Japan from somewhere exotic. A small but lively city centre (which kept us entertained until 5am) and some beautiful mountains nearby, with rows and rows of tea growing from near vertical slopes. Must make a note to avoid this route....

29th november, Tue: Goodbye coast, hello volcano. Turned off the busy coastal road and headed for the mountains, towards Mount Fuji. Initially quite misty, teasing me with short glimpses of Fuji-san between the trees, but very quiet... I almost had a heart-attack when I heard a loud flapping of wings next to me - an eagle taking off. Some serious climbing - this is what I term a "dishonest mountain"... the last pass before the lake (today's destination) is at 1100m, not too unreasonable a climb maybe, but just as you're getting up there the bloody road falls away into a descent, and you know with horror, that you have to do the whole bloody thing again. And then some.

Dark when I arrived at Lake Yamanakako - usually thriving with tourists but now in the off-season - and there being no obvious accomodation still open, I tried the local tourist-information office. I chatted a bit, explained the type of cheap B&B I was looking for and explained that I could cycle there. She didn't look too confident and reluctantly rang a number. "It's a foreigner", she said apologetically over the phone.

Oh it was a struggle alright - "can you confirm you speak japanese ?" (what the F**K ?? that's what we were speaking in !), "can you eat rice ?", "are you sure you can eat rice ?"... and after assuring her that yes, I would behave, and no, I wouldn't use my chopsticks in a threatening manner, she eventually crumbled and - whoppee! - accepted my reservation.

Things must be improving. Five years ago they'd have just told me to bugger off.

Distance: 98km. Overnight at Lake Yamanakako (Japan).

30th november, Wed: Great views of Fuji-san from the lake, but somehow it seemed just a little smaller than I remember it... a wonderful mountain route in the morning taking me to the outskirts of greater Tokyo. Then the traffic got bad, real bad. Over the course of this trip, and all the countries I've cycled through, if I could generalise and select the best people I've met, I would have to say truck-drivers. Down-to-earth friendliness, generosity, a "camaradarie of the long lonely road", and invariably careful when passing cyclists.

Not Japanese ones, though. Today, a truck pulled in real close, almost pushing me over the kerb at 35kph. Incensed, I caught up with him in traffic, parked my bike, and stood in the middle of the road with my middle finger raised towards him. But he was patient - I had to stand like that for a full minute before he really got red & angry and I could rush off, satisfied.

Familiar areas of Tokyo started appearing on signposts - Hachioji, Shinjuku, Shibuya... english newspapers were now appearing in the ubequious convenience stores, and policemen would hassle me to get off the road and onto the pavement, in the crazy belief that it's safer to manouvre 130kg of bike & rider through pedrestrians rather than cars. Ahhhhhh... Tokyo. It's grand to be back.

Distance: 105km. Overnight in outskirts of Tokyo (Japan)

1st december, Thu: The last 25 kilometres (or the first 15,000 ?... )

A late-start, timed to reach Aoyama park at lunch-break (yes, everyone else works, it seems..) to greet old friends and colleages. I was surprised, amazed... lots of people actually showed up! And it was suddenly strange to see so many familiar faces at once. I was overawed - words of congratulation, flowers, champagne... and somehow my bike had aquired a large cloud of gold and silver helium balloons ("welcome!", "congratulations!"..) attached tastefully to the rear-rack.

My final destination was to be Nihonbashi bridge - the official centre of Tokyo, traditionally from where all distances to the capital are calculated. If I'd mentioned earlier than people in Japan just don't give cyclists a second glance, then I hadn't been thinking of a scenario where a dozen large shiny balloons are tied to a slow-moving touring bike moving through downtown Tokyo. Passing the Tokyo imperial palace (lots of bemused stares there), I soon made it to the Nihonbashi bridge, and the official end of my travels.

Standing there, waiting a painfully long time for a friend to turn up, helium party balloons swaying around my head in the centre of Tokyo's busy business district, I thought to myself: What on earth am I doing here ??

By the Gods !! How many times had I asked myself that in the last eight months ?! ..........


The End!

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