Ever since I started studying Architecture Japan was top of my travelling hitlist….and it’s a long list! Switzerland was my primary Architectural destination and after studying and working there for over 3 years I felt I satisfied that yearning and now I resolved myself to do justice to my other Architectural fetish. To reach Japan with a bicycle could be described by many as a feat in itself and it’s fair to say I went slightly off route in my attempt to satisfy my Japanese desires. A 5 hour flight to and a 9 hour return flight goes slightly against the spirit of cycling around the world but hey you only do this kind of trip once, right? (or so my parents would like to believe) So can you combine an architectural quest and a cycling trip….I was about to find out!
Arriving from the Philippines after a rollercoaster ride, I had left myself little time for preparation. Equipped with enthusiasm and naivety instead of a guidebook and research, I took Japan head on. I had naturally no accommodation booked as I wasn’t sure which town I would cycle to that day and with the plane being delayed by 5 hours I had resolved myself to the fact mid-flight that I would be sleeping near the airport if not in the airport!
Elegant Geisha...making me feel scruffier than ever!
Culture shock is something one expects to experience going from a developed country to a third world country. I however experienced quite the opposite. In true South East Asian style I filled out the arrival card with a substantial amount of N/A answers which was not to the appreciation of the staff at the airport. At this point I became imaginative and my hotel telephone number bore an uncanny resemblance to the taxi number advertised in front of me. I hit the tourist office straight away which was surprisingly still open at 11pm and were slightly put out when I asked the best way to cycle to Osaka. After much confusion they realized I didn’t have a motorbike and pronounced it as an impossible quest. (a mere 50km away) If however I was to achieve this outrageous task I was to send them a report by email! I left laden with maps of which were entirely in Japanese and an alarming amount of well wishes and offers of prayers in my honour…..obviously they didn’t grasp the concept of me cycling from Tibet actually means I cycled from Tibet.
No taxi was ever willing to take the poor missile from either airport...but they make a nice photo.
Long day in the office, Kyoto.
Kyoto temple prayers.
Throughout my trip the word “impossible” is brandished about with increasing frequency. Sadly I have come to the conclusion that we have become a very timid race where the word “difficult” is now substituted by “impossible”. When the air-conditioning broke in an Indian hotel the manager exclaimed we would die on the spot….did the world always have air-conditioning? On hearing “Canooought” and “Impossible” innumerable times a day eventually even the hardiest of cyclists succumbs and questions what they are doing.(normally occurs at the bottom of a hill) However unlike in India I didn’t get all worked and simply put myself in their shoes. I am a stranger in their land and they are simply concerned for my safety. Like a Shepard monitoring his flock I was a stray who had escaped from the air-conditioned bus brigade and they just wished to put me safely back in my pen. As Asia is more a holiday destination than a travel destination (subtle but drastic difference), I naturally presumed travel would encompass some hardships, however the locals associate hardship with travel as much as they do cornflakes with breakfast. What previous generations considered as normal life is now considered as hardship or poverty. As I left my hotel door open to allow some air flow in southern Thailand, the manager was horrified to catch me “in the act” of washing my laundry in the sink. Now my wardrobe is VERY limited and the effort to walk to the launderette, pay the money and go back and collect the said 3 items would have expelled more energy than washing them in the sink myself. However it was a frowned upon concept none the less to see a foreigner stooping so low into the depths of hardship and poverty. I wouldn’t mind but the so called hovel, sorry “hotel” was fitting its non-star rating admirably. Perhaps it would be perceived as inverse snobbery in a more reputable hotel.
Osaka Bay, Kansai.
My immediate obstacle in Kansai Airport was that bicycles weren’t allowed cross the bridge to the mainland as actually the airport sits in the middle of the ocean, beautiful but not altogether practical for the cyclist. Exhausted from hauling my bike across Manila and a shaky delayed flight I just wanted the nearest Hotel. As I was about to investigate the possibility (financially) of an airport hotel the kind lady from the tourist office said she had ordered me a blanket and I could sleep outside the police station office on a lounger upstairs…”very common, comfortable and safe”. I was sold!, this was to be the first of many gestures I was thankful to be on the receiving end of during my entire stay in Japan.
Post hurricane Mt. Fuji, the architect of my cycling legs!
Next morning I re-assembled my bike and was off to investigate this bridge I wasn’t supposed to cross. I figured I’ll go as far as I can and play dumb and hopefully they will let me through as no bus was willing to accept my bicycle as luggage. I quickly realised however why bicycles are not permitted on the bridge as there are metal grids shaped like teeth which are perfectly sized for a bicycle wheel to be lodged in. With that I had to forego the amazing view as I was constantly keeping an eye out for the next grid trap. I popped in my headphones in case any security were going to shout at me from a distance and I pedalled as fast as I could. Well as fast as one can stopping every 100 metres. Had I known the bridge was 8km long I may have devised a more appropriate strategy but 25 minutes later I thankfully found myself on the mainland where the security men eventually appeared and were staring at me like I was too mad to be true!
Legendary BiciClown, cycling the world "Miles for Smiles" for 8 years. He carries 80kg making my 35kg panniers look like like a flimsy handbag
Depressing slot machine buildings dot the roads...on the upside ideal toilet stops!
Tasteful lanterns everywhere.
Coming directly from the solitude and the low-tech easy life of the Philippine islands I was bracing myself for the assault of the 21st century and that was precisely the reception I received. Toilets practically came with a menu they had so many functions to chose from and suddenly all the cars and transport were spick and span unlikely to break down or do anything unpredictable in the foreseeable future….disheartening as there is nothing I love to do more than pedal past a broken down vehicle….sorry it’s the little victories that keep me going! I also quickly learned that it is possible to get all your basic needs from a machine without the need to utter a word….helpful as Japanese did not feature in my language repertoire. Drink machines were literally on every corner teasing me in the almost intolerable heat (hurricane 2 days later) and token machines outside the restaurant where you exchange a token for a meal. What I noticed most was the march of the penguins at 8am across the pedestrian crossing, men in their black and white business suits clutching a cigarette in one hand and an iced coffee (naturally from one of the countless machines) in the other. Even in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore the supposed megacities of Asia I didn’t see anything near as obvious as this representation of stress…or progress!
Bewildered onlookers as I stopped in a "mall" to photograph this one.
I had the good fortune of having arranged to have lunch with Misato in his hometown outside Osaka. I quickly realized contact without a telephone was going to be difficult but as the sim cards here are not compatible with phones outside of Japan I had little alternative. As with all developed countries internet cafes are almost a thing of the past so I reverted to old school phonebox communication which are surprisingly hard to find. I’m in no position to complain however as it is exactly the same situation in Ireland.
Lunch was an interesting affair and I was quickly forced back to my pointing and sign language method of communication. Thankfully most places have picture menu’s but you do feel like a complete fool not being able to communicate the simplest of requests. My seamless “point and order” technique in SEA where you are already in the “kitchen” of the stall proved to require some alterations in Japan. Suddenly obstructions such as counters, glass cabinets and hidden kitchens hindered my ordering progress. I am officially illiterate in this country.
Despite the excitement and novelty of a new country the last 10km into Osaka were far from enjoyable. There is no official bicycle lane in Japan and bicycles are supposed to share the footpath with pedestrians which is an annoying habit for both parties. Most annoyingly is that I have to lug my heavily laden bike up and down curbs at such an almighty rate that for the first time on this journey I really would appreciate my padded cycling shorts. The second menace is the sheer amount of traffic lights which slow you down tremendously. I may have been a law abiding cyclist today (apart from the bridge episode) but I’m not sure how long I can test my patience till I join the cars on the main road.
In Osaka I had the pleasure of Staying with Masato in the reclaimed land area known as Osaka Bay. It overlooks the busy port and a graveyard of Tadao Ando “Ghost buildings”. I found it interesting that the icon of Japanese modern architecture that is Tadao Ando, is regarded as a nutter by the locals and an architectural genius of sorts by the international media. You are literally tripping over his buildings here and nutter or not there is no denying that the “church of light” is simply a magnificent piece of architecture. The wine museum in Osaka bay perhaps less so!
Starting to think my Schwalbe tyres are fake chinese copies. Tried a new sealant that looks like milk and goes into the tube. With half of it doing what gravity intended it was an expensive experiment.
My alarm clock was a guy doing slow motion aerobics...only someone who has visited an Asian park in the morning knows this comic form of exercise.
Amazing host Aimi in Kyoto....drenched missile in the background.
Swing correction software at the driving range....no substitute for Bobby Browne though!
After a hectic few days acclimatising and discovering the sights and sounds of Osaka I was headed towards Kyoto conveniently only a days ride away. I was also lucky enough to coincide my visit with their biggest annual festival (which I will look up later) and appreciated the heritage city that it is famous as.Kyoto embodies traditional Japan with no less than 17 World Heritage Sites and more museums, art galleries, palaces and gardens than you could explore in two lifetimes….thankfully I had my bike to speed up sightseeing! An area I particularly enjoyed was Pontocho, with its typified old Japan with wooden buildings and hanging lanterns, in short it lived up to the picture postcard image I had of Japan! As beautiful as the Geisha spotting was and after 3 days I was nearing my quota of temples so its no surprise that I was eager to hit the road again. Whilst in Kyoto I had the good fortune of being hosted by a fellow cyclist Ami and a fellow guest “Biciclown” a Spanish cyclist who has been on the road for 8 years in his “miles for smiles” mission to cycle around the world giving clown performances in underprivileged areas en route. A truly inspirational person who is still as enthusiastic and committed to his dream as he was 8 years ago. Meeting like minded people on the road is always good for your sanity, as I pedalled away that day I felt completely average if not a little boring in comparison to Alvero. At least he is actually a clown whereas I just receive the reception of one!
Octopus Balls Takoyaki, thanks to the help of Ken my masterpiece can be seen above.
Unfortunately the day after I arrived in Kyoto so did a faster guest …a hurricane. It was forecasted to last up to ten days and inconveniently was headed in exactly the same direction as I was. Not good for the soul! So with the old adage that is becoming all too familiar on this journey “There is no such thing as bad weather just inappropriate clothing” I dressed accordingly and hit the road. To be honest the coolness in the air was a welcomed change at first but the higher into the mountains I went the less appealing it became. The mist was so dense at some point I seriously began to question why the heck am I cycling when I can literally see nothing of the view. Due to the steep gradient of the hills on many points this was probably a good thing! I was offered a lift 5 times that day which you can interpret as a sign of the generosity of the locals or of how insane the riding conditions were. A sobering moment arose when I was hurtling down a well earned hill and suddenly I realized my brakes were failing. I was struggling to keep on the bike at all due to the cross winds from the hurricane and the fact that I couldn’t see more than a metre in front of me and so resolved myself that lack of visibility and break failure were two ingredients for an imminent accident. I can now confirm that a runaway bike is infinitely more terrifying than a runaway horse. At least a horse has some sense of self preservation. In an attempt at damage control I quickly scanned the adjacent side barrier on the road and the moment I saw a break in it I tried to jump off….not thinking that there was probably a side barrier there for a reason. Indeed there was a hefty 500mtr downfall (I was going downhill after all) but thanks to my bad timing I hit the barrier full on. Pulling myself off the ground and limping to access the damage to my bike I hobbled on 100 metres further to see that the road suddenly flattened out….now that’s just not very nice! At a sedate pace I carried on cycling to the next town using a Flintstones method of breaking at the slightest of declines. Cycling pathetically slow, drenched like a drowned rat, grazed legs and arms stinging in the (nuclear ?) rain, wearing a face like a child who just lost her Barbie doll, it was not my finest hour.
The ever popular Manga comics!
Another causality that day was unfortunately my iphone. It was in my shorts pocket all day but I hadn’t noticed because my clothes were so heavy from the dripping rain. When I did discover it was sadly too late, with it failing to turn on and the screen looking like it had a cloud screensaver imported from Ireland. A week later it finally dried out but now its just a glorified ipod as none of the other functions work anymore…oh well I’m sure there is a lesson to be learned there somewhere!
My main hiccup in Japan was keeping on the right road. Out of nowhere a national road breaks into a highway and unfortunately I was pinned to bare shoulder a few times and rescued by a police escort on more than one occasion. This problem came from the fact that I had no English map and I couldn’t find one during my stay there. The maps the tourist office provided were adequate but did land me in a few hair raising moments. Hindsight is a great thing but unless arriving in Tokyo I would advise bicycle tourists to order their cycling specific maps online before you travel as the famed “Mapples” maps were not to be had in any bookshop I graced.
Japanese are known for their hospitality towards tourists and this is certainly exemplified by their police force. Back home I would have been charged for wasting police time but in Japan each time I was rescued I would pedal slowly the wrong way down the motorway diligently behind the police man as he waived his fluorescent baton as if swatting flies with gusto, at oncoming traffic whilst simultaneously trying to subtly catch his breath. He would then set about drawing me a map and make me repeat the directions. He spoke in Japanese and I in English so presumably this was just a formality or he’s fond of the Irish accent. Then we would flippantly throw bows, smiles and handshakes all round before I pedalled one way and his flashing baton went the other.
The biggest pleasure about cycling in Japan as a solo female cyclist is the safety factor. People told me you can quite literally camp anywhere in Japan, be it at a shrine, temple, park, under a bridge, school ground….there are no boundaries. I was a bit sceptical of this supposed fact but after my stint in Japan I found it to be entirely true. I cycled with a local from Tokyo for a leg of my journey and he assured me it was common for foreigners and young Japanese to pitch a tent to their hearts desire anywhere(I classify as foreigner and hopefully young too)…..and so I did! Biciclown also pointed out that many convenience stores (which are literally everywhere, often across the street from each other) have all their electrical sockets outside and don’t mind you plugging in your phone. Many of the parks boasted showers, electricity and BBQ area. In short its cycling heaven having the freedom to cycle till your legs get tired and know you can set up camp right there. Locals were also curious about a cyclist in their country and many a door was opened for me at night which I will be eternally grateful for. Having language as a barrier, if it wasn’t for these gracious hosts I fear I would have left Japan with little knowledge of their culture. The Japanese are infamous for their hospitality but the “tour de france” feeling they gave by extending their arm by the roadside with a fresh Pocari Sweat isotonic drink never failed to put a smile on my face and a kick in my legs!
Contender for the Karate kid.
Photography wise Japan was a case of right place wrong weather. The supposedly amazing Mt.Fuji lay in front of me but sadly all I could see was a mist which looked like it had been imported from the Boyne Valley on a winters day. I took a consolation photo of the “Mt.Fuji viewpoint” sign which a bit like armchair travel, isn’t quite the same. The same can be said for lake Hakone. Sadly hurricane weather is not conducive to good photography and not particularly good for the soul either. With the bad comes the good so I settled for sushi in the Mt.Fuji viewpoint restaurant where I pretended the picture on the wall was reality. A failed attempt but at least the sushi didn’t disappoint.
My arrival in Hakone was quite a sensation. Due to innumerable omitances on behalf of the cartiographer or the cyclist inability to read a Japanese map I was still pedalling uphill an hour after dark. The mist was so strong near the lake that I could scarcely see my hands on the handlebars in front of me. There were a few misjudged curtain raisers but finally the real peak arrived at 8pm and I freewheeled into deserted misty hakone feeling like a witch in a horror movie as my rain mac flapped in the wind. I was a sorry sight as I entered the first shop (and only) I saw and was too tired to cook so I bought beer to warm me up…made sense at the time. I have no idea what the woman was saying to me but the general gist was that she presumably thought I was an ex-con on the run who had escaped from one of the numerous ships on the lake…you would think likewise if you saw my sorry drenched state. Camping was not an option that night so I set about finding a “Royokan” but with the visabilty being as it was and streets deserted to ask for directions, I was never so elated to see a brand knew disabled toilet complete with shower, bed, electricity, 3 sinks, 4 plug sockets and lamp shades on the lights. I did not feel in the slightest way guilty wheeling my bike in and making myself at home….if Japan was going to deal me such weather there had to be some form of compensation. Sitting in your office reading this you would be forgiven for not considering sleeping in toilets the noblest of acts but when you have toiled 11 hours and 120km up and down (mostly up) a mountain through a hurricane it is quite frankly a most dignified act in my opinion!
Architecturally the highlight of the trip was Kyoto and Osaka with Tokyo also offering a few gems. The cities however were a pain to cycle in as you had to use the footpath which you shared with pedestrians and navigating the cycling paths proved testing on more than one occasion. The city of Nagoya for example took me over 2 hours to clear because of painful amount of traffic lights I had to sit by. The mountain and lake regions with their outdoor springs more than made up for the cities however. As with most countries the higher you go the fewer cars you see and the more beautiful the cycling and scenery. In this case Japan was no exception. As regards fellow cyclist apart from Biciclown or Alvero to give him his real name, I passed only one other cyclist who committed a huge touring crime by snubbing me. It’s an unwritten rule that you stop, exchange stories and give advice on upcoming routes with fellow tourers. I can only hope he was suffering from heat delirium which I was on the verge of getting when I saw him. There are plenty of power-ranger racing bike locals who give you a smile but never stop, that said if you have a problem they would help you out without hesitation. One such cyclist insisted I keep his map when I asked him for directions. Saturday is the day they appear en masse and it does little for your morale to see a lycra clad cyclist speed past you as you trundle along with your load….if considering a rest day I would choose Saturday!
....and one final Tadao for good measure.
An odd sight I saw one day was a local cyclist in full lycra attire with a truck tyre attached to the back of his bike with a rope, pedalling uphill. His face was the most determined I have ever seen almost as if he was possessed…..I guess this is what they classify as “in the zone” which evidently I have never been. Presumably this was a vigorous if not sadistic training regime which left my load feeling very light and my expedition baby food in comparison.
My departure from Japan was one of the classic hair raising episeodes of the adventure. I had enquired at the tourist office if it would be possible to cycle to the airport or was the road only for vehicles. She assured me it was a “perfect, beautiful, cycle” and proceeded to highlight the route on my map. I can only presume the woman thought I was suicidal as there is nothing perfect about cycling through a highway tunnel with a figure hugging 2cm shoulder and trucks of upwards of 100km on your tail. For fear of a heart attack I never looked in my rear mirror at the approaching trucks and feebly stopped and grabbed my bicycle for fear of both of us being sucked away by the truck. I pedalled like the clappers and thought I would cry with joy on reaching the end of the tunnel only to discover another equally menacing one awaiting me…..so much for light at the end of the tunnel! With absolutely no alternative…..and believe me I would have accepted a lift from a convict if he offered at this stage, I pedalled on. Presumably I went into auto-drive as I remember nothing of that final tunnel and was rewarded at the exit with a chaotic spaghetti highway junction. The most frustrating part was that I could see the airport but had absolutely no idea how the heck to get myself there. Painfully aware that my flight left in little over an hour I adopted an “as the crow flies” approach.
okay and one more......Tadao bar, Tokyo.
It was dark at this stage but from the streetlamps I thought I made out a bicycle track which had seen better days. After about 1km I realized I was actually on the verge of the runway. Well at least I’m getting close! Later I spotted a prefab security building in the distance which was reassuring as I presumed that they had walked there and I must be close. The face of the security guard when he saw me pedal past at speed was undoubtedly the most original facial expression I’ve seen to date. He understandably assumed me too mad to be true but as it transpired he did compose himself at some stage for there was a crew of alerted security awaiting me at the entrance to the departure lounge. Knowing a scolding was in store where I would be told in detail what I did wrong by security I knew this was an episode I didn’t have time for. I snuck around the back (easily done when dark and you don’t actually have a bicycle light) and dismantled and packed my bike for the flight at speed with the sacrifice of TLC. With the bike out of sight but not a hard guess as to what was in my giant bag I raced past security smiling non commitedly at the inquisitive cries of “cycle?” With moments to spare I successfully checked in but was rather miffed at the fact that the check-in lady didn’t realize Ireland was a country!.....but I won’t hold a grudge as she did let me check in late after all. Patriotism even in my darkest hour! When I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror the reality of the last 3 hours was written on me. My hair had developed a sophisticated afro any hippie would be proud of from the suction in the tunnel. I was also caked in a 1cm black dusty soot from the dirt in the tunnel and had blades of grass lodged in said afro from jumping fences to get onto the runway/believed bicycle track. As I attempted to humanize myself again, I pitied whoever had to sit beside me on the flight and on a more sensible note I am drafting a letter to the Tokyo Tourist Office to confirm that it is absolutely unequivocally not permitable or advisable to cycle to Tokyo Haneda Airport…..but possible!
Temple garden, Tokyo.
With the ordeal over and safely awaiting to board I began to feel the stress of the recent journey wash away. As I caught one more glimpse of myself in the mirror the stress was substituted with a serious case of the giggles at my inapt ability to spruce myself up and the whole absurdity of the past three hours. Sitting in the departure lounge looking like john the Baptist gone to the dogs and laughing uncontrollably by myself, I for once befitted the clown audience I have grown accustomed to on this journey.
Apparently this young Geisha charges her male clients up to 2000 euro (euro not yen) for an evenings "entertainment"!