3. Kansai

Apr 5 – to Osaka (110/1720 km to date)

I had a good talk in the Toyoko hotel in Himeji over breakfast with an English fellow.  He is here with a Bike Friday doing basically a city bike trip, jumping from city to city by train.  He folds up his Friday so he can take it on the train.

I left the hotel, late without any idea where the night would find me.  I tried to find a bike trail reported on the Japanese cycling site.  A bike shop guy gave me a lead that lead to some wandering the side streets between hwy 2 and the sea but I kept getting tied up in the port areas.  As fun as the meandering was I finally stayed on a moderately busy road and got to Akashi where I wanted to check out a ferry route around Osaka, but it was not to be.  It would have been a nice alternative to two days of city riding.


I got back out on Hwy 2, as it continued on through the cities.  The first one was Kobe.  It was mid-day and so one lane was always kind of available for cars wishing to stop, which meant I was able to sail along on the road without feeling I was holding anyone up.  During rush hour I imagine they shut this lane down for stopping and it would be more hectic.  I was usually able to make 4 or 5 sets of lights between stops; I was going about 5 kph slower than the traffic.  The incredible thing about Japanese traffic is the length of time the lights take to change and the amount of time you wait with no vehicles passing in front of you.  I just can’t imagine, with all of their fancy electronics, why they don’t use sensors to speed up the changes but I am sure it is purposeful.

At any rate, I sailed through Kobe still early enough to continue on to Osaka.  As I approached the outskirts of Osaka I stopped a bridge that I thought might give me a point of reference for some back road riding.  A woman confirmed my sense of where I was and so I headed off into the neighbourhoods looking for the hostel I was aiming for.   I imagine the population of Osaka/Kobe/Nara/Kyoto/Himeji must be in the 10 million or more.  It is second only to Tokyo/Yokhama and area.  I will be riding in city for more than a week before I get out but the attractions in this area for me warrant that effort.  My friend who helped me at the bridge, gave me the wrong answer or was it the right answer to the wrong question. At any rate it took me an hour and a half to find the hostel a good half of that in the vicinity of the hostel.  If you approach this hostel by train there is good support in finding it but not by bike.

It is a big hostel in a high-rise with lots of room and pretty modern facilities.  Young people are here from three different countries and so the hostel is very active.  I had a nice sento bath a unique dinner down on the street and decided that I would stay another day killing time before my reservation in Kyoto.

April 6 – Osaka

I headed out leisurely to explore the metro system and get to Osaka-jo.  This is another nice reconstruction, set in a lovely park.  The sakura are still lovely but are now on the downside. There are lots of blossoms blowing around and it won’t be long before the trees are beginning to leaf.  I walked a bit, just appreciating the city.

Possibly the highlight of the day was my own personal hanami.  I bought a street bento box, watching the office girls to see who they went to and what they bought.  I supplemented this with a beer from a convenience store, a process I am familiar with.  Another block or two got me into a park on one of the many rivers going through town.  I had my hanami with hundreds of others doing the same thing, under the sakura canopy.  The odd cherry blossom I think adds to the taste.  We even had a Peruvian flute band providing the lunch time entertainment.

I had picked out one other attraction, a ceramics museum that is highly rated but it was closed to change the exhibits.  I ended up in a Kodabashi store; they are famous for cameras and other goodies. I bought a fancy new watch, I’m not sure why.

At any rate that’s Osaka for me.  I will continue on tomorrow to Nara for the next two nights, where I have some objectives .  This will be more city riding – 30 to 60 km depending upon how lost I get and whether I decide to wander or not.  Nara has some interest for me.

Apr 8,9 – Nara (90/1820 km to date)

I zig-zagged across the north eastern part of Osaka with the going to work traffic.  It was cold and sputtering again after two nice days.  Just as I think maybe I’m over the hump with this cold it returns.  My route finding was about 60% effective. Without a compass on cloudy days like this I would end up going in circles.  All the rivers and train lines result in a fairly complicated road system.

Cutting through the massive city is a forested north south ridge that I was approaching and my chosen road headed up and over it.  A nicely made set of switch – backs gains 300 m in about 5 kms.  It is two lanes each way and there must be other good routes because it is not too busy.  Dropping into the Nara area was fast and cold.  I had poor information on where my hostel was and so I went to the Nara station information centre and got maps and information.  At the hostel I was let me into my room a little before noon, which was appreciated as I got to put together a pack sack of stuff for my planned walk in Nara-koen, where I would spent the afternoon.

The prime attraction seems to be the giant bronze Buddha, Daibutsu, housed in Daibutsu-den.  The building is the largest wooden building in the world and Daibutsu is one of the largest bronzes.  Hundreds of tour buses were parked dis-gorging day visitors from Kyoto.   Daibutsu is within Todai-ji and as you enter the gates approaching him there are two wonderful wooden guardians which are unfortunately behind screens and so can’t be fully appreciated.

From Todai-ji I went to Isui-en, probably the first garden I have visited here that fits my pre-conception of what a Japanese garden should be.  Fairly small with all sorts of small vistas and little details to savour.  I was a little turned off by the price but by the end of my walk was quite satisfied.   The contrast with Daibutsu couldn’t be greater, as here we are only a handful of elderly garden appreciators.

I wandered back up through Nigatsu-do, where you can look out over Nara and then on across the top of the park to Kasuga-Taisha with its three thousand Japanese lanterns in stone and bronze.  These all are lit twice a year, but for now I finally got touched with a small amount by the sun after my frigid day.  Heading back down for a final walk through Kofuku-ji with its five and three tiered pagodas, I took more time to appreciate the tiny Nara deer that are everywhere and the pale and slightly darker sakura.  The pale sakura are quickly being blown away but the darker are just coming into prime.

I collected my bike and bought supper from the super-market on the way back to the hostel, which has no restaurants near-by.  I fear it will be too far to cycle down to Yoshino and back tomorrow, so I am not sure what my day will bring.

I had an easy second day, riding the periphery of Nara, stopping at the old palace site and two World Heritage Temples, of which I entered only one, the cheaper of the two and did not feel well served by my money.  I have seen possibly too many temples already and I am not even in Kyoto yet.  The charge has gradually risen to about $10, and this may not get you into the inner sanctum.  If you hit a number of temples then it begins to add up.

I had a long leisurely lunch, back in the city, in time to head back to the hostel, picking up supper at the super market.   I had a nice hot bath and visited with some of the other old guys here.  I guess the big treat in this hostel is the English Language newspaper that they buy and set out in the sitting area.  I had a long read each night, with my beer, which meant my bath and then my supper were late getting me to a normal bed time.

April 9-13 – Kyoto (160/1980 to date)        

With only about 40 km to Kyoto, and a very early start due to the age and sleep inclinations of my roommates, I decided that I would do everything I could to take back roads to Kyoto.  Hey, before I get onto the back roads, I will say that for the first time with old Japanese roomies there was no snoring.  I have to adjust my assumptions.  Anyway, I had a great morning getting to Kyoto.  I was in quiet neighbourhoods, at one point on a bike path beside a small creek riding beneath the sakura, often riding along with the young children walking to school in groups wearing identical hats, usually yellow, and when on busier streets it was always slow and steady.

I hit Kyoto Station IC to get my bearings and to set my Kyoto strategy, and there I got the usual good city information.  This got me to my budget hotel with only a little struggle.  It was closed, with no indication of when it would open; I assumed 4:00 the normal time.  Out on the street I saw a bike shop with a good line of bikes.  In 45 minutes for $10, the guy in the bike shop replaced a gear changing cable that had become only partially operational, oiled and tuned my gears, cleaned and oiled my chain, filled my tires, checked my brakes and sent me out the door  with a significantly better bike.  My fourth good bike shop experience all at very reasonable rates.

I had a great rice bowl and then did a fine world heritage temple and a lovely garden before returning to my hotel and checking in.  This is very basic hotel, I guess the reason I was able to get a booking for the four nights I wanted to be here.  I had my beer and shower and my super market supper before others started drifting into the little closet sized kitchen with five stools.   My extended stay in Kyoto, as with most people who visit Japan, is based upon its history as Japan’s capital for most of 1000 years, only replaced by Tokyo in the last couple of hundred years. During its time as the prime city in Japan 100s of temples, shrines and important structures were built, many of which have the gardens for which Japan is now recognized.  I will not attempt to see or digest all of Kyoto, but I do hope to get a full taste.

Soon there were two Brits, a guy from the Netherlands, two Japanese girls, and four Danes, some of each gender but all in their twenties, except the lone Canadian.  I ran out of beer and then had some of the concoction our Danish ringleader was serving.  He is quite interesting, a full time party guy, which suits the impression he gives until you talk to him.  He is working in the Japanese Institute of Technology doing robotics research but is really a chemist like I accused him of when watching him with his drink mixing.  The guy from the Netherlands speaks what looks like completely fluent Japanese.  At 9:55 we were shut down completely by the owner, whose sense of humour matches the stark nature of his hotel.

My first day out was very complete.  I cycled about 40 km, walked another 10, and visited the castle, Imperial Palace, four great gardens, a couple of World Heritage Shines and Temples.  Kyoto is laid out in a grid and so I can choose the back roads to ride without getting very lost.  I had a great day.  It is now obvious that my notion of Japanese Gardens came from those in Kyoto, and I haven’t done much more than start.  I have two more full days.

My second full day started as the over night rain was ending, but still threatening.  I was off to try to get to Ryoan-ji before the crowds.  Ryoan-ji is possibly the most famous Zen-garden and hence on the tourist route. I had a good 20 minute ride, mostly through the neighbourhoods.  I again made good use of Kyoto’s grid structure and got to my garden on back roads.  I found Ryoan-jj a bit after opening just as the first tour bus, carrying a group of Germans, arrived but I made it into the garden ahead of them.  There were already about 20 Japanese sitting quietly contemplating the scene.  I took my pictures and joined them.

Zen gardens seem mostly to be built around a tea house and the various little courtyard gardens are interspersed throughout a labyrinth of walkways and rooms, all which is enclosed in a wall giving further privacy to the whole.   At Ryoan-ji the most famous of the little gardens is comprised of fifteen rocks, meant to be mountains sitting in clusters on five islands in a sea of white pebbles. For me it is an elegant simplicity that makes this so pleasing and relaxing to sit and contemplate. You view the garden from the raised wooden walk-way that meanders thought the complex    In another life, when I have the time, inclination and patience this is the sort of garden that I will build.

By the time I was done here there were 15 buses and people were strung out to shuffle shoe-less through the hall ways.  I had two other visits in this neck of the woods.  At one, Ninna-ji there is a special late-blooming sakura that had brought hanami parties and photographers out in numbers.  The other, Kinkaju-ji, is famous for its Golden Pavillion, and I joined in a line of people meandering through the paths and walk-ways of the lovely temple grounds.  I am sure that in any Kyoto temple, and there are hundreds, you can walk in and have no trouble finding artistically pleasing little scenes of rocks, lanterns, trees and bushes set on grounds of dirt, grass, pebbles or moss.  I am now of the mind that it matters not where I go in my remaining time here.

I rode back into the centre of town, having lunch at a coin-operated restaurant and then visited the big book store.  I am past the buying stage for Kyoto, but I like to look and might pick up a book or two in Tokyo on the way back.  In one of the books I got some more ideas of which places I might find some more examples of Zen-Gardens and so headed back up to the north part of town, where I had just been.

Daitoku-ji is a Zen temple complex made up of a number of temples, each which its own gardens.  I think there are about 11 of these sub-temples, all with little gardens, but most are closed to the public.  I visited three; Ryugen-in I liked the best; Daizen-in would not allow photos and were a bit commercial I thought; and Koryu-in is set in a forest of bamboos and uses moss as its ground cover.

By now my day was done and I had another nice ride back to my hotel, mostly on side-streets.  By the time I walked across the street to have dinner in the little family run restaurant, catering almost completely to families, it was raining again.  One more full day to go, will it rain?

And yes, my final day here it rained all day. I managed the largest five story pagoda in Japan, and a few hours in Tofuku-ji, another Zen temple complex with many interesting looking small courtyard type temples, each no doubt with its own little garden.  I got into the prime garden, where I sat an hour or so relaxing and hoping the rain would abort.

No such luck, I had lunch in the centre of town and took a few pictures of an attractive street in Gion, the geisha area.  I have seen some women dressed in traditional Japanese outfits but have no way of knowing who is geisha and who is not.  I saw many expensive looking restaurants in Gion, and apparently many are exclusively for business, often with geisha hostesses.

I have basically given up on the possibility of warmer weather.  I am now half way through my trip and did a brief shopping look for some warmer water-proof shoes.  I found some that would do the job, but they did not carry large enough sizes for me; and I do not have big feet. I will be leaving in the morning and the forecast is for more rain, which I expect will be cold.  Kyoto has been everything I had expected.  The gardens and the sakura are great.  I am sure I didn’t get to 20% of what there is, and still it is overwhelming.  Biking is a great way of seeing the town and the attractions and I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t too frightened of trying.  I did quite a few kms in 3 ½ days, but most of it pretty flat.  The traffic is moderate but always polite and you can always stay on the sidewalks.  I haven’t done much in the way of fancy eating here; going out alone to a nice place is, well going out alone.  The little family place is great for me.  That said, I feel that if I were to treat myself to some high dining it might be here

April 13 to Tsuruga (120/2100 km to date)

After a full day of rain yesterday it was nice to see only heavy cloud this morning as I set out.  I began following a JCN route, which took me through Kyoto and out the NE end, climbing on a fairly quiet road (Japanese standards).  The climbing continued for most of 15 km once out of town and then a most convoluted turn took me back down to Lake Biwa.  There was a funny looking unconventional sign but luckily the JCN site had talked about it.  There is no way I would have figured this one out without having read their post.

At Lake Biway, the largest lake in Japan, I left the JCN route heading along the lake for another 40 km or so.  Much of this was away from the main road and was pleasant and flat.  The rain was holding off except for some sputtering. I had a convenience store coffee and snack and a photo break along the lake.  Lunch was in a real workman’s cafe where I watched the cook deftly tossing noodles with two porous serving spoons into a neat bundle that became part of my soup.

Back on the road I was in for another stiff climb and now it was lightly raining.  A light rain while climbing can be refreshing but in this case the road was very narrow and the large trucks eliminated any sense of fun.  Once over the top I had a long drop down to the Sea of Japan. The light rain was now heavy and both the passing trucks and I were going faster than either of us should have been going.  I was quite relieved to slow down as the road flattened out at Tsuruga.

I saw a Toyoko-Inn as I approached the station and headed right there.  Unfortunately it was only 2:45 which meant that they would not let me in for another 1:15. I was very cold so off to MacDonald’s where they wouldn’t refill my coffee for the first time. Back at the Toyoko the singles were all gone and so it cost me an extra $12.  Oh well, I’m in out of the rain and I will be able to internet for the first time in over a week.

I’m not sure where I will get to tomorrow, but I am headed towards Kanazawa

Apr 14 – To Fukui (65/2165 to date)

I had my Tokoyo breakfast, made a skype call to Canada and stepped out into a strong cold north wind.  The road hugged the shore, and so there was no protection from the wind. The ride was pretty spooky with the trucks whizzing by attempting to suck me in.  After about 15 km we began to climb over the mountains which meant tunnels. One stress was replaced with another.  I was surprised when I came down out of the mountains into a MacDonald’s for a late second breakfast to see that I had averaged about 18 kph even with the wind and climbing.  I get pretty pumped and work hard to keep my speed up when it is stressful.

From here on though still windy it was pretty flat  and the road was much wider often with good bike sidewalk and a rideable shoulder.  On the highway at Fukui, before noon I had just made the decision to carry on when I saw a Kanazawa 80 km sign. I decided that I had enough of being cold for one day.

I found my way into town and found a hostel.  The old people running it were so surprised to see a non-Japanese they weren’t quite sure how to handle me.  The old woman started trying to say that it would be 5:00 before I could check in but then changed her mind and took me up to my room right away. What a relief.  Once I stop riding I get cold and it takes forever to warm if I can’t bathe or get into a warm room.

I did go out and look at the old castle walls and then found a warm restaurant and rode around town a bit.  This is a fairly attractive upscale looking town but there is no one home.  In my wandering I was alone in a department store with a whole floor of expensive specialty foods but for 20 sales people waiting for me to buy something.  .Back in the hostel early I had to settle for a hot shower, no sento, and then spent the night in my room, eating my grocery store meal while enjoying music.

April 15 – to Kanazawa (90/2255 km to date)

It rained hard all night again but in the morning it was clear and cold with only a moderate wind.

I had a “family mart” breakfast on highway 8. I decided to stay with the main highway and get to Kanazawa fairly quickly to do my touristing.  Highway 8 is either a four lane divided with a good shoulder and bike sidewalk, or narrow, two lanes with no shoulder or sidewalk.  I went over some small hills and this is usually where the road gets narrow but it was still fairly fast going, even with the wind.  Periodically, when the main road is elevated to clear train tracks and small roads there will be a service road that runs tight against the main road but down at ground level.  This can run on for a few kms and it makes for a nice change as it is quiet and a bit wind sheltered.

I had an early lunch close to Kanazawa mostly to try to get my feet warm and then as I was off the highway and heading into town I saw a big mountaineering store.  45 minutes and $200 later, I came out with knicker socks, a touque and water proof boots; I have given up on the notion of having nice weather in my final three and some weeks.  A block or so down the road I saw my first snow covered mountains rising above the town.

Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s top three gardens is the big attraction in Kanazawa.  I guess I would never get tired of walking through gardens like this.  It is a full sized garden, not like the Zen gardens in Kyoto which are a different thing.  There is always a lot of water and many gnarled pines and rocks.  I am really appreciating the use of moss as a ground cover, I guess in part because we could never have that in Calgary.

Kenroku-en is adjacent to the old castle and I did a walk through the grounds but did not go in.

I found my place, Murataya Ryokan, deciding to go ryokan rather than hostel tonight based upon location and that this ryokan is only about $50, $15 more than the hostel would be..  It is a very attractive place, I had a sento, have my own tatami mat room and I am treated a bit more graciously than in some hostels.

Apr 16,17 – tHakodate (Hokaido) (90/2345 km to date)

A big jump and a big change of plans.

I left my ryokan in Kanazawa into a tough north wind.  I was going painfully slow from the outset.  This got me thinking, and fussing about my poor planning in doing this ride from south to north.  I had been riding into the north wind for the last month.  The final straw hit when I had just fought my way up some hills and through a couple of tunnels.  I had just got on a sidewalk that was heading into another tunnel.  In my mental fugue my attention was less that it should be and I hit some glass.  I got a good slash in the sidewall of the front tire.  I put a tube patch on the inside of the tire but have no idea how it will last.   Riding warily I soon stopped for an early lunch, seemingly not far out of Kanazawa and made new plans.

I got into Toyama, a major city about 2:30, rode right to the train station and bought a sleeper ticket to Aomori, on the north end of Honshu, where I will find a ferry to Hokaido.  The idea is that I will do a short run on Hokkaido and then head south all the way to Tokyo, or if I run out of gas or time I can get another train.  Even if the wind changes, at least it will feel like I am heading home, and I will be able to give some of the mountain roads a try. Heading north on the Sea of Japan side, I saw no way that I was going to be able to get into the mountains.  It will be cold to start but this way I will be heading south hopefully towards warmer places.

At any rate, first I have to get my stuff on the train. This is no small feat but I have seven hours to find what I need and pack my bike so that I won’t get turned away at the gate. After riding around town in the sputtering rain, I found the key item on the seventh floor of a store beside the station.  I paid $45 for a folding trolley similar to the ones I used in China, which cost me $2. It is for my panniers and bags,  I found a bike shop that had a bike rain cover that will be my bike bag; bikes need to be in a bag on trains in Japan.  I also needed some additional straps and I bought a light rope as a fall back.  I had a leisurely dinner and then gave myself a couple of hours to pack.  I split my bike, removed the pedals and handle bar, but left the wheels on, and it all went together pretty well in my rain cover.  The panniers, I had done many times before.  It makes an awkward load, especially since I would have to lug it up and down some stairs to get to my track.

On the train, the conductor moved me to a half-compartment so that my bike could be left on the floor without banging into my companion.  The sleeper is an up/down affair, but there was lots of room and so I had an up/down to myself, and was able to sleep off and on. We arrived at 8:30 am as scheduled.

It took about ¾ hour to put everything together in the train station in Aomori. I only had a few kms to the ferry but I managed to lose a bag with my extra straps and my new rain cover, as it wasn’t attached firmly enough.  I had enough time to ride back over my route but it did not turn up.  Most of my mishaps of this sort happen when my routine is changed.

The ferry will drop me off in Hakodate about 3:00, and so it has been a tiring long go since Kanazawa without getting out of my clothes or having a shower.  Hopefully I will be able to do so in Hakodate.   Join my on Hokkaido, where I can only spend a few days.

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