Japan, 2010 – Starting Out

The seeds of my interest in Japan, long since planted by authors ancient and modern, finally germinated in my first (and still only) visit in 2010.   While I savour and appreciate the haiku of Matsuo Basho, so sparse and eloquent even in the English translation, it is “On the Narrow Road to the Deep North” that resonates most deeply.  Though 350 years old, this travel adventure is possibly most responsible for drawing me to Japan to search out my own “narrow roads”. I wonder if I can find quiet country roads leading to a slow and traditional culture in this most industrial country.

I am drawn to Japanese Gardens, ancient castles and the mysteries of a culture that can spawn Samurai so honourable and admirable and yet still allow the WWII atrocities.  Chasing the Cherry Blossoms, from south to north as they emerge from their winter grip will give me a path to follow as I experience Japan.

My plan was to cycle the length of the main islands, starting on Kyushu  the southern most island and then progressing north with the spring following the Cherry Blossom Front (Sakura Zensen), touching on Shikoku, much of Honshu the main island, finishing on Hokaido in the north.  This would mean taking a train or ferry from Tokyo to Kyushu to start my cycle journey and from Hokaido back to Tokyo to finish.

In reality, the weather would cause me to hop a North-bound train part way through Honshu.  I then biked south from Hokaido to Tokyo to end my trip. Most of my interests were met but many more interests were fostered on the trip.  I realize now that one trip will not be enough.

Japan – March 10 to May 10, 2010


Mar 10,11 Getting There

My troubles began right away as the first thing was to get a fist-full of yen.  The machine I chose indicated it would give me a 100,000 yen, a bit over $1000, quite a bit but I knew I had a lot of spending to do right away and so I went for it.  The machine whirled and groaned and spat of a receipt, but no money or card.  I pushed and banged things and then went off looking for help. An information kiosk girl made a phone call and then returned an hour later with a bank rep.  I got my card back but no money.  Redeeming that will be another struggle I’m sure.  I used a different machine, took out 50,000 and 2 hours later than I had hoped headed for the train.

My new bike suitcase does not pull very well, too skinny and top heavy.  My other bag, with all my stuff is pretty heavy and does not roll.  I got down to the station fairly well as I was still using the airport trolley.  An hour and a bit on the train and then an easy transfer to the metro put onto the street. It was supposed to be about 15 minutes walk to my hostel but my luggage struggles put me into a taxi.   The driver took about fifteen not very efficient minutes to find my hostel, finally using a GPS system to get us there. I would have really struggled fighting my bags and wandering these streets.   Asakusa, where I am staying, is a bit of a rabbit’s warren.  It was about 9:30 when I finally got into my room, and I was in the sack not long after.

Mar 12 – Tokyo, getting my business done

I was out on the street looking for breakfast around 6:00.  Few people were out and we all scurried along in the cool air made cold by the light wind funneling down the street.  I found a place where I picked out a picture of a meal, put the required amount of money (about $5) into a vending machine and then a few minutes later the waiter put the meal in front of me.  He also helped me to whip up the raw egg and mix it into the hot rice and shredded beef mix.  It was great.    I was slow eating as I was in no hurry but some of the other clients did their whole transaction in about five minutes.   I love learning new approaches to the simple things in life.

It was too early to head for the information centre or any of the other places I needed to hit today, so I bought a metro day pass and headed for the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest in the world.  I got on a line and off at a station somewhat removed from the easiest approach to the market and so I walked through a modern high-rise world, still a bit early for the office workers.  The cool was now tempered by the sun, although it will not be hot on this day.  My cycling jersey over a shirt will do me, even though most locals are still in winter garb. The market is much too large and congested to get a good fix on but compared to other fish markets I have seen it seems more like a processing plant.  1000s of trucks surrounding 1000s of stalls with 1000s of people cutting, boxing and transporting fish of every description; everyone moving with great haste.  As I walked about looking for interesting shots I needed to watch for the little propane driven carts, screaming around picking up and delivering; the drivers being of the same mind as the delivery truck drivers in industrial Calgary.

My business day started by seeking travel information from the Japanese Tourist Information Centre in the form of a girl with an Australian accent.  She was able to direct me to places where I was able to meet all of the needs that I had to satisfy before heading out of Tokyo.  The rest of the day involved many metro trips and much walking from place to place.  I was in three large booksellers before I chose a large and unfortunately heavy Japan Road Atlas; I bought my ferry ticket which will get me on the 34 hour ferry trip to the island of Kyushu in the south where I will start riding; almost trickiest to find was the little outdoor shop where I picked up a gas canister for my stove.  In criss-crossing much of central Tokyo I was able to get a feeling for the mood of the city and how to get around.  The metro was pretty easy. It is not as daunting as I had feared, given that it is the world’s busiest at this time.  I saw 1000s of black suited men and women scurrying around and could not help but admire those few who seemed to break the dress code.  There were however very few black suits in Akihabara, where young men and some women shop for the latest in electronic goodies; this is apparently “geek” city.

Even though I have yet to do much in the normal tourist sense, I am quite impressed with the flow.  This seems very orderly and easy city in many ways.

I finally got lost when back in Asakusa. I wandered off to visit Senso –ji, a Shinto temple a few blocks from my hostel.  This is one of the few districts close to the centre that has not been fully gutted and re-built.  Apparently Asakusa is the traditional home of workmen, peasants, prostitutes and n’er-do-wells.  I guess it is no coincidence that this is where the budget travel segment have settled in.  The streets remind me of the hutongs in Beijing, although more polished and glitzed up with boutiques and restaurants. The same labyrinth that stumped my taxi driver last night stumped me as well but I did not have a gps to rescue me.  I probably passed within 50m of my place a couple of times before I finally found my way by heading  out onto the main drag and then back the route I took out in the morning.

Mar 13 – About Tokyo (80 kms)

My task for the day was to get a good ride, get familiar with Tokyo road rules and act the tourist.

After breakfast when the office opened at 8:00 I got my bike out of storage and began to assemble it.  I chose the little hallway into our room, as in the room I would be in the way of my room mates.  The bike went together well except that the chain had a funny twist in it that I just could not sort out.  I ended taking off the derailler wheels, which allowed me to get it threaded properly, but it was still  was not right.  I suspected that part of the derailler was loose but I was also worried that it might have been bent in transport.  I had been struggling for a couple of hours with one room mate climbing back and forth over my mess and another still in bed no doubt pissed.  I went looking for a bike shop, found one a block away and yes something had come loose. Underway, two hours later than hoped I was off. I do love exploring strange cities by bike.

I set out heading through Asakusa-koen (park) past Senso-ji (temple) towards Sumida-gawa (river).  The Sumida snakes its way south on the east side of central Tokyo to the sea.  As the river enters the sea it braids into numerous islands, some of them man-made and on one of them I hoped to find The Tokyo Ferry Terminal.

I hit the river and immediately and surprisingly saw a couple of lone cherry trees in blossom.  My “sakura” had begun.  There were more photographers here than cherry blossoms. These trees are very early and will have long since lost their blossoms when most are in bloom here in Tokyo.

The rest of my ride to the ferry terminal went well.  There were the odd bits of walking/biking trail along the river but not enough to sustain the ride. Much of the time I was on side streets, on one side of the river or other.  As I got into the main part of the city I was pushed west and then had to make my way back to the river.  The main advantage in following the river was that I didn’t have to worry about navigation as long as I always remembered on which side it was.  My only request for help was to another cyclist as I was about to cross by far the biggest bridge I had encountered.  He confirmed that it was the first of a number of bridges connecting the islands that would lead to the Ferry Terminal.  Ferries have mostly been replaced by high-speed trains and so I saw no people in the port area but I think I did find what I was looking for. Tomorrow as I come with my full load will tell.  My ride, to this point was about 35 km.

Heading back, I naturally took a different path.  Once into the town centre again I headed to the public gardens surrounding the  Imperial Palace. My ride around this area was on a foot/bike path that was being used as a running track by hundreds, apparently in a citizen’s race.  I left my bike and wandered through a garden that was open to the public and clambered around on the foundations of a Tokugawa (16th century) castle.  From there I bounced around through numerous boroughs each with a flavour of its own now using my new atlas frequently. I finally entered Asakusa from the north.  My bike day was about 80 km, pretty good for a city ride and a late start.

Tokyo is pretty easy to bike in.  There are bike trails marked on almost all sideways but I was able to ride the roads often as, like Bangkok, the traffic moves slowly enough that cyclists are usually faster.  Navigation is not that hard as there are frequent well marked major roads that would rescue me after meandering through winding side roads.

Mar 14 – Wheels that don’t go around and the Ferry (40km/120 to date)

I had breakfast at a Denny’s; possibly a last western breakfast for a while and not much more than the coin operated place that I like.  A bonus was coffee with refills.  Back in the hostel to pack, I naturally had to use the foyer into the sleeping room to sort through my things.  One of my two roomies was still sawing it off when I left at 10:30.  It was kind of nice to be able to take the time to do this in the morning rather than trying to get it done at night.  I still zonk out pretty early and last night I was particularly tired. When I finished my packing I even did a web-site upload and email session.  It cost me 5500 Yen to store my big suitcase for the 55 days that I will be away, but I guess that is a small price to pay for this convenience.

One Destroyed Wheel

Even though I didn’t need to be at the ferry terminal until 18:00 for the 19:00 departure I left the hostel about 11:00 with the idea of a meandering trip with lots of stops on this Sunday. There would be lots of people out on one of the first good spring days.  It is a good thing that I left early.

1.55 km into my ride, I was crossing a minor street, passing behind some cars waiting for a red light when a big white Mercedes backed into me, knocked me off of my bike but not down and over my front wheel.  A distraught woman who had been driving jumped out of the car concerned that I was not hurt. I meanwhile was far more concerned about the pretzel she had made of the wheel; nothing else seemed to be hurt.  A policeman from a small guard house was soon there and took the woman’s husband and me, dragging my bike, over to the guard house where we talked; they in Japanese me in English not really understanding each other much.  I was connected to an English speaker by phone to provide further elucidation.  It did not help that I had “no fixed address” or phone number and just wanted to get the wheel replaced and onto my ferry.  By this time I still had no idea if the Mercedes was accepting all or even some responsibility.  I suppose I should have been crossing at a proper intersection but then I am not Japanese and don’t know any better.  I was more than prepared to pay up and head off but I needed a bike shop.  The police put me in the hands of the husband; the wife and the Mercedes had long since disappeared.

With my pretzelled wheel in hand we jumped into a taxi and headed to a shop the police had located for us.  That shop had nothing that was close to serving my needs and no English was to be heard either.  We got into another cab and were heading nowhere until I directed them to  the little bike shop that had helped me yesterday.  They could not help. By now I was struggling in my mind with what would happen if I could not get a replacement in time to catch my booked ferry which had cost me about $200.  The young bike guy called a fluent English speaker and I was able to communicate that I really needed a wheel today and could not the bike guy help me locate one.  This lead to a third taxi ride, each of which my Mercedes guy paid for from his stack of 1000 Yen notes.  This was a larger bike shop awash with bike aficionados gearing up for spring. A technician was waiting for us and soon had mounted a new tire on a reasonably good wheel.  I was somewhat worried as it is a lighter weight rim with only about 20 spokes, but most of my load is on the back so I am crossing my fingers.  My Mercedes guy, by now a friend, peeled off a few more bills, now 10,000s would be required, and we jumped in our last taxi ride back to the guard house and my crippled bike.  I shudder to think about what this day might have been like in a country where people are not so polite or well heeled that can see me through this sort of thing. Fault was never discussed; they only wanted to help me resolve the problem.

My new wheel mounted, I was back on my route at 2:00. My mishap had consumed 3 hours which is not bad considering what it could have been.  I was a little more careful as I headed along a route that was more direct than I had originally planned.  Being Sunday the traffic was a bit lighter than usual and so my trip was pretty easy but I did miss my turn to the east.  This was further complicated when I stopped to figure out where I was from signs that indicated I was in an area called Minto.  On my map I missed that there were two Mintos so I kept going south when I should have been turning east.  I imagine this cost me about 10 kms before I figured it out and found the bridges that I recognized from yesterday. I still had time to ride into Odaiba close to the ferry terminal where I was able to get a meal and stock up a bit for the ferry ride.

Waiting at the terminal it was very cold as the sun had by now disappeared.  I am still not confident that I will not be into some pretty cold conditions even though I will be starting 1000 km or so further south.  I do not want this to be a slightly too early trip like my ride across Canada in 2008.

There are about fifteen others in the big open room where we “deck” passengers sleep.  Some of them are other bike riders, mostly in their late teens I would judge.  One at least is getting off at Tokushima on Shikoku, the one stop the ferry makes on the way to Kyushu.  Most ferry riders stay in the little state-rooms which cost 2 to 3 times as much.  As ferry travel is so limited now, the food service on board is mostly vending machine and I will need to figure that out, but first I will dip into my store of beer and stuff from Odaiba.

Mar 15 – En route by ferry to Kyushu

I slept pretty well on one of the generous benches with sheets and blankets provided.  The vending machines fed me a cup of noodles for breakfast and later I had a real bowl of noodle soup from the lunch counter.  I chose to visit the sento (bath) when we were stopped at Tokushima while most were leaving the boat so I could kind of figure out the process without anyone watching.  It is pretty straight forward.  I think when the baths are segregated you don’t use a suit.  There is a washing area near the big tub and I shampooed and scrubbed well.  There were shower nozzles here and so I just did my thing like I would in a normal shower.  There are little stools and buckets about, and I think that is the more traditional approach to washing up.  While I was sitting in the pool, which wasn’t really hot, another guy came in and he used the bucket and stool approach.  I liked the feeling of sitting in the hot water and it did seem to help my snoozing.

I cooked my own supper, using my stove and food left over from my John Muir hike.  Mostly I read, walked a bit, dozed a bit and then packed more carefully bringing the rain gear forward as it has been raining much of the way.  Surprisingly the time went easily.  Most of the people and all of the other bikers got off at Tokushima and so there are only about five or six other deck passengers for the second leg.  My second night on board will be short as we are scheduled to dock at Kitakyushu about 5:30 am.

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