Goodbye blog

It’s time for me to acknowledge that this blog is becoming less and less of a priority in my life. I’ve tried to re-motivate myself for blogging by attempting to open a Patreon account last year, but that hasn’t been very successful. For good reasons, I should add, because if you’re going to spend money on Patreon there’s a lot better places to spend money on than this silly place. I’m not intending to wipe this blog off the internet or completely stop posting, but the content of this blog has definitely changed from “I am posting at least weekly about important experiences in my life that have affected me deeply” to “I am posting once every few months about stuff that I have trouble motivating myself for”. So I guess some closing words are in order.

There have been some major changes in my life lately. I got married. Bought an apartment. Bought and sold a car. Changed jobs. But I think the one major change that is a constant throughout everything is: I got older. I continue to get older. And as I get older, the amount of importance I place on my own life only decreases with time. I believe this is strongly correlated with intensity of experience. Ten years ago I experienced everything for the first time and was amazed at what life could be like. It was something that I felt I had to record, not even necessarily for others, but at least for myself. Formative experiences. The internet was a more innocent thing at the time, and a blog seemed like the right place. The internet was full of friends, not of crackers.

On all these fronts the zeitgeist has moved on. I am at a point in my life where I don’t have many truly ‘new’ experiences any more. There’s still loads of stuff I’ve never done, but I’ve done enough similar things often enough to be able to relate and use my experience in new areas. For example, my experience in touring cycling gives me a broader knowledge that can be applied to backpacking. It also gives me a starting point if I ever wanted to venture into speed cycling. My experiences in traveling to various countries means I’ve learned how to get started on exploring other new countries. My experiences in learning several programming languages and countless frameworks-du-jour means that it’s pretty easy for me to pick up other new software technologies. It’s a kind of meta-experience: it’s the experience you need to be good at experiencing new things.

Having meta-experience is nice, but also not nice. It definitely seems easier for me to start any random new thing at this point in my life compared to ten years ago, but also, I could not possibly derive the same kind of enjoyment, the same kind of ‘new-ness’, from it. Less intense experience means less desire to blog about it.

Another thing that’s changed since I started this blog is 1) social media, and 2) my relationship with my friends. When I started this blog Facebook was only just becoming popular. Video calls existed but kind of sucked, especially if you had to explain to non-tech-savvy people (my parents) how to do them. This blog was a great means of staying close to the friends that I made in Japan after we all went our separate ways. That was ten years ago though, and the amount that I communicate with my friends today seems to be a better fit for Facebook than for blogging. Even my un-tech-savvy parents figured out how to use Facetime, so there’s no shortage of communication methods.

It’s definitely worth mentioning here that the internet has changed. If you’re applying for a job, companies you apply for will without fail find out everything about you that’s publicly available. That’s only rational. I’ve had a negative experience once where a potential contact called me out on something I wrote on my blog. That’s fair game, but if, like me, sometimes you write things that could be taken negatively out of context, then you need to consider that your online presence can only have negative consequences for you in real life.

There’s also the hacker angle. The more you put up online about yourself for anyone to find, the easier it is for someone to impersonate you, or to find out starting points that they can use to find out more about you. This was something that you only vaguely had to be aware of ten years ago, but is becoming way more important lately. There’s probably already web crawlers out there whose sole purpose is to crawl information on the internet and group it by person.

I’m sad to write this, but I’m even worried about what governments can find out about me. Imagine you’re on a plane to some country, go to passport control and get taken aside for a ‘random’ check. Then you’re confronted with some silly blogpost that you wrote ten years ago that casually mentions “but country X is a shit country anyway and president Y is an asshole”. This is not a far-fetched scenario. I have read reports of this happening to other people online. All it takes is for one person to jump on one silly thing that you wrote years ago and you’re in for a terrible experience. You could argue “but then you should think a bit more about what you write on the internet”, which is a totally valid argument, but also that’s kind of what makes blogging fun for me and (hopefully) for the few people in the world who are actually reading my blog, so if given that choice I’d rather just quit blogging.

I am coming to terms with all of these things. The meta-experience/getting older thing in particular has caused me to review parts of my life that I always took for granted, that I am now starting to feel that I could live without. Cycling is one of those areas. It fitted my bohemian persona from ten years ago, but nowadays I find that I’ve got some direction in life. With that direction, my cycling hobby has been reduced to ‘staying fit’, which is something I can actually do indoors. It doesn’t help that the UK is a lot less cyclograph-friendly that Japan either. Blogging is on the list of things that used to matter a lot to me but are just not having any effect on my life lately. So it’s time to cut them out. Spring cleanup. I have gained (meta-)experience from all of these activites, but now it’s time to let it go.

See you later, perhaps.

Posted in Daily Life, Thoughts | 1 Comment

How to find out if your phone is spying on you

<tinfoil-hat>

I browse 9gag a lot during my commute. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow commuters I find it uncomfortable to do something on my laptop, and at least in the mornings I’m not awake enough yet to properly enjoy a book or audiobook. So instead, I turn to 9gag for my cheap entertainment. As such, I see quite a lot of ads.

Over the past few months I’ve managed to convince myself somehow that the ads that I’m seeing are targeting things that I’ve only ever mentioned verbally, but never digitally. It’s just extremely suspicious to see an ad for one particular brand the day after you’ve spoken about it to someone. This kept happening to me, so I thought of a way to try and ‘prove’ that my phone is indeed listening in. My wife and I had a running joke for a while where we’d shout odd terms (“ARNE JACOBSEN CHAIR!”, “NISSAN MICRA!”) at my phone to see if ads for them would show up. (No for the Arne Jacobsen chair, yes for the Nissan Micra, but cars in general are already a natural search term for me and there’s a digital trail showing that I like cars, so no solid evidence there).

To take it one step further I devised an experiment. For a few days my wife and I brainstormed about topics that we would never ever look up naturally; topics that are so far removed from our daily (digital) lives that it would be very unlikely for us to see targeted ads for them. We tried to focus on popular topics that people or companies would actually buy ads for. All this was done offline, on a small piece of paper, and to the best of my knowledge neither of us ever uttered one of these topics out loud or typed it in digitally until the experiment was over.

While we were devising the list of topics I took screenshots of all the ads I saw on 9gag, as well as a few on Facebook and in my browser. The idea is to compare these to the ads I got served after uttering each of these topics out loud.

With the list of topics finished, rather than manually conversating through them in the vicinity of my phone, I instead prepared an old laptop of mine with a text-to-speech script which I ran overnight. I downloaded PyTTSx, made sure that it worked, then disconnected the laptop, which had a clean Windows installation with no personal information about myself, from the network, and uninstalled the network drivers. Then I wrote a Python script to run some plausible conversations about the topics we had written down on paper thought the TTS engine, and set it to loop. I had to listen through each topic several times to make small adjustments to the spelling because the TTS didn’t quite pronounce all the words right unless you spelled it slightly wrong. I added in a few voices and a few speeds and ran the script overnight with my phone charging right next to the laptop, far far away from the bedroom. Because listening to a computer having a fake conversation about topics you couldn’t possibly be less interested in does get boring after a while.

At this point the topics did exist digitally, but only on a laptop that was disconnected from the internet. I continued my daily routines as usual and again took screenshots of all the ads that I saw. I kept this up for 2 days before I got bored of taking screenshots, after which I categorized all the ads I saw into one or two categories and tallied up the results. 

The Topic column contains whether the category would be something I’d expect to see naturally anyway, or one of the “highly unlikely taboo topics” that I would otherwise never search for or would never even come up in my daily life. The rows highlighted in yellow are where the taboo topics overlap with the ads I saw, and the rows highlighted in red are the particularly suspicious rows of topics of which I suddenly got served a lot more ads after running the taboo topic script. There were also a whole bunch of taboo topics that I never saw ads for, presumably because no company paid for ads for those topics, or because I’m a crazy tinfoil-hat guy who’s just a bit too paranoid.

I’ll try and be generous and explain away both the medical category and the pets category. I was already served one ad in the medical category before running the script (which uttered some new and much more.. un-science-y medical keywords), so a slight increase is not entirely unbelievable. The same goes for pets: although the keywords in the taboo script were very heavily focused on dogs (whereas my wife and I are very much of the cat persuasion), we do have a pet and it’s not unlikely that this information could have crept up in our digital life during the course of the experiment, outside of the TTS script.

Then there’s the third red category that shows a sharp increase, for which I just can’t find a reasonable explanation: loans. The ads in this category were for 1. credit ratings, 2. leasing cars, and 3. short term loans. I’ve been employed pretty much continuously over the past 12 years, have never searched for or had a loan (other than my mortgage, which is a very specific loan category that hasn’t popped up either before or after the experiment). The TTS script contained several passages about wanting to buy or build (expensive) DIY things as well as the actual term “pay day loan”, and some other words that could perhaps imply increased gullibility to these kind of ads. When I was categorizing the ads I saw a very clear distinction between ads that focused on investing capital (category ‘Investing’ in the image) and ads that focused on how to loan things or improve one’s ability to loan things.

I can think of several explanations of why the ads changed after the experiment:

  • Coincidence. Ads change over time. Maybe the loan companies just didn’t buy any (targeted) ads until in the middle of my experiment. I didn’t run the experiment anywhere near long enough to rule this out.
  • Leaks. Maybe I changed something about my online behaviour that changed the ads I was served.
  • Something on my phone or in my house is listening in. Could be the phone OS, could be an app on the phone, could be a nearby TV or PS3.

It would be possible to go one step further and intercept the network traffic coming from my phone, but I don’t think I would be able to conclusively prove anything one way or another. If the speech recognition happens client-side then I wouldn’t see any speech data over the network. Or it could be encrypted. It might be worth a try, but I suspect I won’t find anything obvious.

Is this enough evidence for me to say that my phone is definitely listening in on me? Definitely not. But this, combined with earlier incidents of ads matching conversation topics over the course of the past few months, I think is more than enough reason for me to be suspicious. It would be interesting to see other people try the same experiment. If they find the same results then we could start comparing phone OS, installed apps, other nearby electronic devices, etc.

For now, since I hardly ever speak on my phone anyway, I’ve put a little bit of blu tac over the microphones. I tested this with by calling my wife to confirm that no audio is heard on her end when I speak. If, over the course of the next few weeks, I find myself not noticing a single instance of an ad matching a conversation topic, I would consider that pretty strong proof that something on my phone is listening in. No matter the outcome, it’s probably worth a followup experiment. Time to think of new categories.. (Don’t send ideas for new categories to me, obviously! Unless it’s a handwritten letter..)

</tinfoil-hat>

Posted in Daily Life, Tech | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sofia

We did a city trip to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Things we learned:

  • Stamp your bus tickets. We took a but into town from the airport and didn’t (know to) stamp our tickets. A stop later a bus conductor came in and charged us an 80 lev fine for not stamping them. Some websites describe this as a scam, but it technically isn’t. Those are the rules of the country and the transport service which you should abide by. Counterpoint to that is that the driver knew we had just bought the tickets from him so were not reusing them on multiple trips, and the conductor knew we came straight from the airport and clearly didn’t speak the language or knew anything about the country. If it were any other country the people would be reasonable enough to just let us stamp the tickets and let us off, but nope. Our first impression of Bulgaria was that people want to fine you.
  • Don’t take pictures in museums. Your standard ticket does not include taking pictures. No one will tell you this until after you’ve taken a picture so that they can charge you extra money and you have no way to back out since you’ve already taken a photo.
  • Not personally experienced by us, but after the two experiences above we researched some more potential fines/scams, and apparently taxi scams are quite common too. I’m not surprised. The taxis looked extremely dodgy. Pickpockets are reported to be quite common too, although we had no issue with that.
  • Our hotel, one of the better ones on booking.com, somehow was unable to regulate room temperature to be below 28 degrees C, even though it was 10 degrees outside. Complaining about it didn’t help.
  • Not many tourists on the streets. Or people. 
  • Graffiti everywhere. Broken potholes everywhere.
  • Hot spring steam coming up from the ground!
  • Beautiful mountains in the background.
  • The food was pretty good. Amazing desserts. Excellent fish. Lots of pork.

What a ‘fine’ country.

 

Posted in Travel | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Closing thoughts

(Written on the 13th, scheduled with time delay.)

Right after I gave my bike to Kuroneko for airport delivery I was in shock. After one busy event after another, I had some free time to think. I sat down at a random ‘park’ (that is, a free bit of concrete) and after a while finally calmed down. I had anticipated this moment, because I thought that moment would clearly show how I felt about the impulsive decisions I had been making recently. Instead, what came was only a mild rationalization with no clear sway towards thinking it was a good or bad decision to go back early. My mind was still full of worry about the day’s hotel and if I would be able to cancel all the next hotels without financial damage. The rest moment wasn’t quite there yet.

I know very well that what I’m doing is a pretty weird thing, even for my doing. Impulsive booking a cycling trip, and then impulsively cancelling it and returning early for no tangible/external reason, not many people would do that. Of the small group of people that does touring cycling, an even smaller group does touring cycling alone, and even smaller group would plan (and unplan) a trip the same way I do. This does not bother me in one bit, but I can see that other people may have trouble understanding my motivations. Hell, I have trouble understanding my motivations. That’s why I write blogposts like these.

Yesterday I awoke from the love hotel quite early. I never managed to turn the lights off and I left the outside door ajar just to cool the damn place down. It’s an utterly terrible place to sleep. I’d even prefer a capsule hotel over a love hotel, but that’s only because capsule hotels tend to be way cheaper. Anyway, I went for a short stroll through early morning Kochi (yes, I can say where I am now!) and walked towards the station. Not many people were awake yet on this Sunday morning. I considered taking a train back to Tokushima, which is where I came from when I took the ferry with my bike. But the connection between train stations and ferry ports seemed tedious so I got a train ticket instead. The Limited Express from Kochi to Okayama went along much of the same route that I had cycled the day before. It felt like rewinding the trip. Somehow, in retrospect, I still hadn’t quite found my rest moment yet at this time.

Then I hopped on the Shinkansen to Osaka and did some shopping. Yodobashi is fantastic as always. I wanted new noise cancelling earphones since I lost some bits of my old ones on the flight in. Yodobashi provides. When it came to lunch I was deeply appalled though. Osaka station area is shockingly, disgustingly busy on a Sunday. Every restaurant had a queue of people waiting in front of it. I absolutely hate this. Queueing for food is just not my thing. I’m definitely not a city person. I also thought about finding a quiet cafe after lunch but that was clearly impossible as well. Yet somehow on my way back towards the station I found one place inside the station building that wasn’t very busy, and I managed to have quite a decent curry there.

My final hotel is near the airport, and only a short train ride away from Osaka. And a bit of a walk, it turns out. Unfortunately my Google Pixel GPS chose exactly this moment to stop working, so I had to navigate the old-fashioned way. It wasn’t much of an issue though. But at the end of the day (again, in retrospect), still no ‘closure’ moment about the trip.

The closure moment finally came today. I have a day free to do whatever I want since my flight is not until tomorrow, so I took a local train to Wakayama. I went on the train, put my new earphones in, put some music on and just sat back and enjoyed the scenery. That’s when I realized: this moment is all I really wanted from this trip. One quiet, peaceful moment, to experience Japan the way I remember it, without any stress, or worries, or hurries. All I needed was one day.

That’s when I knew I was comfortable with my decision. I knew what the way forward was. The way forward for me is not Japan, because I have been there before. You can never go back. There is only forward. You can never derive the same enjoyment from the same thing twice. It diminishes every time. That is why you must do new things. It may seem like common sense, or a thing you can make yourself realize just by thinking about it, but you can’t. You really can’t. You need to confront yourself with this reality somehow, otherwise it just doesn’t hit home. For me, making an impulsive decision was the way to make me truly realize this. A lesson I learn in this way is a lesson I will never forget.

As an interlude and totally secondary reason, one very practical reason for feeling great about my decision is this: it’s raining. It’s a gray and miserable day today, and the area I’d be cycling in is even worse according to the weather report. Wind and rain are pointless hardships. At least when you’re climbing a mountain you’re suffering for a payoff, but there is no payoff for cycling in the wind and the rain for the whole day. All it does is make you feel more miserable.

That’s the lesson of this for me: you can never go back, and repeating past experiences diminishes the value over time. You can compare it a bit to playing games: after you’ve leveled up sufficiently, you don’t go back to the first level to hang around and repeat the same quests over and over again, right? There’s always a next level, but the levels you’ve completed, they’re done. They’re fun to revisit after you’ve done them, but you’ll never again feel the same challenge that you felt the first time you did it.

I imagine people will read the previous paragraph and think of it as something negative. I don’t see it that way though. I’m quite stoically inclined, with a (healthy?) pince of nihilism added to the mix. It’s just an unchangeable part of reality for me. I have tested my words on myself and by experimentation have confirmed that they are true, in so far as a statement about a state of mind can be true. So, not ‘True’ truth, but ‘true for me’. I’m very happy about this, because I know it is something I can rely on. It helps me define meaning, so I no longer have to seek for it, or at least not as much as I used to when I first started doing cycling trips.

Tomorrow morning I fly back to the UK. I hope my bike will be at the airport, but now that I’ve rationalized my trip and my feelings about cycling I know I won’t consider this trip a failure even if the bike doesn’t make it or is damaged. It would be a minor setback compared to the mental clarity I found. That said, fingers crossed though. The trip’s not over yet. But I’m on my way home.

Posted in Cycling, Thoughts | Leave a comment

Impulsiveness

(Written on the morning of the 12th, set to autopublish on the 15th)

The truth is, after the cold but refreshing downhill from the last post, either before or after I went to the temple, I forget, I got a strange idea in my head and I couldn’t let it go. It just kept sitting there and wouldn’t move, and forced me to think about it. In my mind I imagined the steps I would need to take and the consequences it would have if it went either right or wrong. In the end, I figured it was worth doing a little investigating in real life to see if it was possible. After all, I still had plenty of time left in the day.

I decided to see if I could change my flight and go home early.

Why? Mainly because I wasn’t really enjoying myself any more. I’ve got the “cycling in Japan” theme nailed. I can look at a map now and know exactly what kind of road I’ll encounter. When I enter a new town I’ll know exactly where the station is, where the hotels are, where the conbinis are, without even looking at a map. Everything is just hugely predictable, and, finally, unchallenging. I just am no longer getting out of these cycling trips what I was getting all those years ago when I first started.

Besides that main reason, two additional reasons that caused me to feel this way are that 1. this trip was pre-planned, and 2. it is genuinely cold and unpleasant outside if you’re sweating like mad, which makes the random wandering-around kind of a non-thing for me. If your clothes are wet with sweat and there’s a cold wind chilling you down then you don’t feel like casually cycling around to see what’s out there, you just want to get to a warm place as soon as possible. The pre-planned bit meant that I already knew exactly where I was going, and I knew that yesterday was both the most difficult and the most beautiful route of the trip, so the challenge kind of disappeared after that.

So, at Sukiya I put the first part of my plan into action: check if I can actually change the date on my return flight. I managed to check on my mobile phone on the wifi from the conbini next door. I could indeed change my flight! I didn’t change it just yet, though.

I am 200 kilometers away from the airport. I needed to check how I would get back there if I’m not cycling back. The train would take me back there in a day, but as I expected and confirmed after checking, it would take quite a few transfers, and either a very long time or a little trip on the Shinkansen. I’ve learned from experience that the last thing I want to do is haul an ultra-heavy bike bag around from train to train, walking from platform to platform, going up and down stairs, passing through heavily populated stations.. That is something that would make for a very miserable day for me, so I preferred to avoid that option.

My preferred option, which I’ve used once before on a previous trip, is to bag the bike and send it via the Yamato Kuroneko delivery service straight to the airport. Kuroneko, for me at least, is not a sure bet. I do not have absolute confidence that they’ll accept my bike as bagged, that they’ll deliver it to the airport on time, and that they’ll deliver it at a reasonable price. Everything changes when it comes to bikes. No one knows how to deal with it. To be fair, I’ve never had negative experiences with Kuroneko, but if I mess this up I’ll lose my bicycle, so I needed to be absolutely sure that it was possible.

So I held off on changing my flight and first cycled onwards to Kochi, where I found a Kuroneko facility. A clueless guy tried to help me but gave up almost immediately and passed me on to a very helpful lady, who provided me with all the details I needed. It was indeed possible, could be delivered within 3 days if I gave the bike bag to them today, and although she didn’t say directly I inferred that she wouldn’t charge me an insane amount of money.

This was around 16:00/16:30, and I still hadn’t changed my flight. So I excused myself from the Kuroneko and immediately went to the nearby conbini to get wifi so I could change my flight. I had to present my bike them before closing time at 18:30 so I was suddenly very rushed. But of all the luck in the world, in a giant city, this conbini did not have wifi! So I cycled onwards towards the station and the center in the hopes of finding a conbini, warcycling to find wifi. Not too far away I managed to find a Joyfull family restaurant which had an open wifi, so I hopped onto my phone to change the reservation. I could still make it.

But then the website broke! The Cathay Pacific site was very mobile-friendly, very easy to use and walked me right to the final step of changing the dates on my return flight, but then it errored saying I didn’t put dates for my departure flight. Well, no shit, I already took that flight, can’t change it now. I hoped it was perhaps a mobile site issue, so I grabbed my laptop and, in the parking lot of a family restaurant, tried to change my booking on my laptop. Again, no luck.

This was a good point to give up. I could simply cycle back to my hotel, never see Kuroneko again and continue on with the rest of the trip. But I felt annoyed that the Cathay site wouldn’t let me change my booking even though it clearly allowed it, so I called them up. Still from the family restaurant parking lot. With my laptop resting on my bike. I connected immediately and the guy I spoke to helped me in record time to change my booking with no issues whatsoever. Excellent customer service. I’m flying back on the 14th.

Then I cycled, quite hurriedly, back to the Kuroneko building, where I started to take my bicycle apart. I’m getting better at this every time, but the rushed-ness of the situation caused me to dirty myself quite a lot. I sprayed a *lot* of chainspray on that chain in the morning, and it was making marks everywhere. I didn’t do nearly as good of a job bagging it as on the way in, but hey, whatever. I’m going home. The friendly lady was still there and accepted my bike without issue, and only charged me 4400 yen. I’m pretty sure that the last time I used them the price was at least double. She also didn’t check the weight. Perhaps they changed their policy, or I was overcharged last time, or it’s just that the distance is less this time. In any case, I’m not complaining.

The sense of relief I got when my bike was finally accepted was amazing. I had a very good walk along various canals on the way back to my hotel, finally realizing what I had done. This trip started out as an impulsive thought made reality in only a day, and now I had undone the entire trip, also on an impulsive thought, also in only a day. That’s probably not a good thing. Then again, the best way to learn is by making mistakes. At least, that’s how I rationalized it as I was walking the many kilometers to the incredibly sleazy love hotel I wrote about last time.

I wasn’t done yet though. I still had to cancel all my reservations and book a hotel for the next two nights. I managed to change my existing booking for the airport hotel and even ended up a little bit cheaper. All other hotels had free cancellation except one, and that one was kind enough to waive the fee. I’ve mentioned before how booking.com is fantastic, but it really is worth saying again. Everything can be done through the website and I was done with the whole process in only a few minutes. Way better than calling up hotel after hotel to get it done.

As of the moment of writing I am still in the love hotel. The door made a noise at midnight which scared the crap out of me because I thought it was going to unlock the room and let some random couple come in, but everything was quiet throughout the night. I never did manage to find out how to turn the lights off, though. What an inconvenient place.

I’m about to check out and head over to the station, where I’ll take all those trains back to the airport. My plan is to stop over at Osaka on the way and buy some new noise-cancelling earphones, because I lost the rubbery bit on one of the earphones on my old ones, and I think it’s time for something better anyway. No plans for tomorrow yet, but I think I’ll go on walkabout somewhere and take some random photos.

I think I’m done with cycling trips for a while. At least until I find adequate motivation to do another one.

Posted in Cycling, Thoughts | Leave a comment

The love hotel

As I mentioned before, all of my current cycling trip was pre-booked in advance, except one night. It’s the only time I’m staying in a big-ish city, so I assumed that there would be loads of hotels available to choose from. But it was also a Saturday night and by the time I started booking my trip everything was sold out. I kept checking back on booking.com and Google maps but nothing became available, until a few days ago. One hotel, just added to booking.com, had some rooms available. It actually had rooms available before, but at insane prices. Now prices were reasonable. Still way higher than regular business hotels, but reasonable. The only catch: it’s a love hotel.

I pondered a lot about whether or not I should reserve it. On the one hand I felt it wasn’t in the spirit of my cycling trip to pre-book any accommodation that was above the bare-minimum business hotel level of service. The only available cheap business hotel was 30 miles away though. I considered booking that and going there by train and then back again to my parked bicycle in the morning, but that definitely wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the cycling trip. In the end my fear of the rain and the cold won out, so I booked the love hotel.

I actually considered just winging it and maybe sitting at the steps of the train station looking like a poor lost foreigner wanting help and waiting for a good samaritan to show up and offer me to stay at their place. Given the kindness of Japanese people I actually suspect this would have worked, but that’s also kind of the reason I didn’t want to do it, since I’d be taking advantage of their kindness. I’m not a lost foreigner any more; I have the technological, linguistic and financial means to book a hotel on the fly no matter where I am. So, better to save that kindness for someone who really needs it. The other reason I ended up pre-booking is that I was still worried that it would rain. Not having an overnight plan sucks a lot more if you’re drenched with rain and icy cold.

My only previous experience with a love hotel was indirectly via a story told by a (non-Japanese) friend, who actually got thrown out of a love hotel because he couldn’t figure out how it worked and couldn’t communicate what he wanted. I quite dreaded that this would happen to me. After almost 90 kilometers of cycling and some unintended extra exercise (more on that later) I really needed some uninterrupted sleep. So when I showed up at the reception desk I was mildly anxious. Fortunately the man at the reception was quite helpful and quickly helped me get set up. He even fixed the wifi for me, although it broke again soon after he left. But hey, I managed to get into my room and was left alone, so I was happy.

Except for the fact that the door wouldn’t stop talking and wouldn’t let me out. There’s a little something I could have known had I investigated a bit first: once you’re in the room, you have to pay to get out. Since I had booked the hotel on booking.com and was expecting to pay by card I was reluctant to use the machine at the door, since I kind of suspected that any overpayment on my part would end up not getting refunded. So I stayed in my room, which wasn’t too bad, since the hotel provided a free welcome beverage (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) and a dinner menu to order from, delivered to the room. The door finally shut up as well so all was good.

The room itself was fairly decent. It was a bit as if a karaoke room and a regular hotel room had sex and squirted dildos and condoms everywhere. It was soundproof, had a PS2, karaoke machine, dildo vending machine and even the mini-fridge was vending-machine-style. You have to pay for everything. The view was excellent. You can tell the owners wanted to go for the premium kind of feel to make it feel nicer than a business hotel, but they went about in a really sleazy way so the end result somehow felt worse than a business hotel. If I wanted to impress a girl I’d never ever take her to a love hotel, unless my goal was to show her how messed up Japan is.

There were two major issues with the room, both of which I had to leave unsolved. The first was that the bloody lights didn’t turn off. I looked all throughout the room, pressed every switch I could find, but the lights would not turn off. I guess that must have been on purpose. The other thing that annoyed me hugely was that the heating was set way too high and there was no way to turn it down. Again, I suspect that was on purpose. Helps to get people to take their clothes off, I guess. After dinner I was just so tired that none of these things even bothered me, and I fell asleep just like that, with the lights on in a room that was way too hot.

I was sound asleep in my bed when the door machine started talking to me again at 23:30. I didn’t wake up fast enough to hear what it actually said but I was worried that it had unlocked the door. The last thing I want is for some horny couple to show up expecting the room to be available. I stayed awake in my now insanely hot room for a few minutes to see if anything would happen, but everything seemed fine. I assume the owner reserved the room for the whole night since I booked online. I solved my overheating problem the only way I could think of: I opened the balcony door just wide enough to get a pleasant temperature. The heating didn’t seem to care anyway and was full open all the time. Still couldn’t get the lights to turn off, though..

All in all it was a really strange experience. Japan is absolutely fantastic in being convenient. Everything you can imagine is convenient, and the way of thinking of making things convenient is embedded in everything they do. You could clearly tell that the love hotel was made with the concept of convenience in mind, yet somehow it executed that concept incredibly poorly. I really don’t know how much of that is on purpose because of the cultural concept of what a love hotel is, or how much of it is just because of lack of thinking things through. I also don’t know which of those options is worse. This is a country that has a ‘play soothing sound’ button on toilet seats so that other people don’t hear you take a shit, so anything’s possible really.

I could have done a late start on the following day and even could have gotten a free breakfast at the hotel, but I just felt like leaving early and getting on with the trip. Love hotels are definitely not for me. It’ll do in an emergency, but it’s pretty low on my list of places I would stay at.

Right, back to travelling. I’m still going through my backlog so I’ve got some fun blogposts coming up. Stay tuned.

Posted in Cycling, Japan | Leave a comment

No wind means a great day

I’m still catching up on blogging because of lack of internet at my previous hotel and laziness on my part in sorting photos. Oh well, it’s a short trip, I can afford to have a bit of backlog.

After my exhaustion on the first ‘real’ day of cycling I was mildly worried about the second, but the weather was on my side for the whole day, and it even got nice and warm during the afternoon. I woke up earlier than I intended to, I guess jet lag is catching up with me. I had planned to leave later so that the sun could warm things up a bit before departing, but I was deep inside a valley anyway so it wouldn’t have made much difference. That said, it was about 3 degrees C when I set off and I could see my breath with every exhale. This time I was wearing the appropriate attire, and the wind was gone, so it actually felt way more comfortable than the day before.

Before setting off I had to do some maintenance. I used the bandage tape to wrap around my handlebars to make them a bit softer to the touch, since my hands had been receiving some damage already, even with padded cycle gloves. I suspect this is more of an issue on touring bikes with front panniers since there’s more mass to turn with the handlebars, but honestly, that’s the way I prefer it. The bike just feels horribly unbalanced with all the mass on the back. After the handlebar was dealt with I pumped up the tires, which had lost a lot of pressure after the first day – way more than I expected. I probably have slow punctures on both tires since they lost about half their pressure over the course of the day. That very likely contributed to me having a miserable time at the end of the day before. After pumping the tires I used the disposable toothbrush each hotel in Japan kindly provides to clean my chain and then gave it a little lubricant spray. I’m not sure how much this helped but when I set off I felt a lot more positive and excited than I did at the end of the day before.

My route took me along a road which, during the planning of the trip, I thought was a mountain pass, but as it turns out it was more of a valley between mountain ranges, and it followed a river almost all the way until the end. It was an extremely gentle incline, going up to about 400 meters over the course of 30-40 kilometers. There were some ups and downs but nothing major, and all in all the cycling part of today was way easier than the worst case scenario I had prepared myself for. And there was hardly any wind! I hate cycling in the cold if there’s wind but without wind it was downright pleasant, and maybe even preferable over cycling in hot weather. Provided you have the right clothes, at least.

The scenery was amazing. Since it was a Saturday I was expecting tourist traffic, but there was hardly anyone anywhere. I guess it’s still too cold for Japanese sensibilities. All the better for me, since it meant I had the valley road all to myself for most of the time. It was a pretty good road, too. It’s likely part of a popular pilgrimage path, or at least I think that must have been the reason that the road nearly always had a wide pedestrian/cycle lane next to the main road, with hardly any bumps or ramps on it. Contrary to my usual stance on not cycling on the main road, this time I took advantage of the side path so I could stop frequently to take photos. Have I mentioned the scenery was amazing? The scenery was amazing.

The barometer in my cyclocomp was somewhat erratic today, which caused the elevation measurement to jump around a bit. It might actually because of varying air pressures in the valley, but I’m not sure. The only other times I’ve seen the altitude measurement go weird was during climbs in mountain passes, so it seems related.

After reaching the ‘top’ of the route after a very gentle climb spread out over dozens of kilometers, the way down was only several kilometers, and quite steep. After the first 200 meters or so I immediately stopped and had to reclothe myself because it was way too cold. More layers, better gloves, winter hat. Still no traffic. Awesome downhill. It’s the ultimate payoff that rewards you for putting in all the effort to climb those heights. I went down so fast that my ears popped.

Back at sea level, now at the other side of the mountain range, it was a bit more windy, but very warm. I stopped at a conbini to take off some layers again and had a look at the map. I wasn’t quite at my destination yet, and to be honest I wasn’t much in a hurry to get there. The destination for the day was a city (bad) I had been to once before (bad), and that I couldn’t find a decent hotel in in advance so I had to book a rather sleazy place because that was literally the only option available to me (bad). Instead, I wandered around a bit. Apparently the Japanese call this ‘pottering‘. It’s yet another bastardization of an English word that is so ridiculous that only the Japanese could think of it.

I found a rather famous temple on my map only a few kilometers from where I was, so I took some random zig-zag roads to get there and had a look. There were a few tourists there, but only a handful. It’s just ridiculously quiet everywhere and I’m not sure why. 

After the temple I wandered my way down towards a major road and managed to find a Sukiya for lunch. If the temple is the goal of the pilgrim then the Sukiya is the goal of the touring cyclist. .. to be honest I prefer Cocoichi over Sukiya lately. Sukiya’s curry seems to have gotten a bit too bland for my taste.

Feeling refreshed after the food I had a casual cycle into the city, which was still quite a way away. I cycled on a main road, which was main enough to have a large wide foot-and-cycle-path next to it. Quite flat, and quite appropriate for ‘pottering’. Nope, I still hate that word. Can’t get myself to like it. I had some time to waste before the hotel would allow me to check in so I wandered around the town a bit. Lots of nice canals, and the usual family restaurants, conbinis, post offices, delivery services, etcetera. Good old Japan.

I wonder if by now you can guess where I’m cycling. I’ve given some fairly major hints in this post. I’ll do the reveal after the trip is over. This post has gotten quite long so I’ll save the bit about the love hotel for the next post. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t great.

Posted in Cycling | Leave a comment

Enter Title Here

So, I’m in Japan again for a little cycling trip. I arrived two days ago, had a somewhat casual day yesterday and the first real day of cycling today. It’s the earliest I’ve ever done a cycling trip. It’s cold..

No matter how much I improve, every time I go on a cycling trip something goes wrong. I’m getting better and better at managing it though. I use wheel spacers so my frame doesn’t bend. I pack everything nicely so my gears don’t get messed up. I remember how my derailleur works so I don’t get confused trying to untangle my chain when it doesn’t need untangling.. Ok, some of these things are pretty stupid. Somehow it only ever occurs to me after it goes wrong that it could go wrong, though. Anyway, the hardest lessons are the best, and none of these things are likely to occur again. Instead, I get new and exciting problems that I don’t know about yet.

First problem: two days ago I built the bike without any issues whatsoever. Since my plane arrived early and I couldn’t check in to my hotel yet I had plenty of time to build the bike to my liking. I spent some extra time fine-tuning the brakes to make sure they’re as tight as can be without hitting the wheels. Then, yesterday, I set off on my fully loaded bike and suddenly noticed that the ‘handrest’ bit on my handlebar, the bit that houses the lower brakes, was bent inwards. It’s happened before after transport, and it’s gotten so loose that I can easily bend it back, which I’ve done during past cycling trips without issue. I only noticed it while I was cycling, so I bent it while continuing to cycle. As soon as I bent it I came to a sudden stop. Turns out I had tuned the brakes so tightly that bending the bit that houses the brakes caused it to overtighten. I made the brakes a bit looser to compensate, but now every time I brake the handrest bit bends inwards..

For as long as I can remember I wear either two or three layers on my upper body when cycling: an underlayer to keep me warm and a layer over that to not look like an idiot. Sometimes in really hot weather I get the stupid idea of not using my underlayer, and every time I don’t wear it, I regret it. I suspect it’s a consequence of my ever-present belly fat that my belly gets really really cold when exercising. As such it seems that I need more layers than most people to feel comfortable. So when other people are wearing their one spandexy cycling layer I’m wearing two layers and a thin coat on top. I’ve had a really crappy Nike anti-rain/wind coat for ages. It’s not meant for cycling at all but it’s exactly the right combination of airy plus warm that I need. I finally decided to buy a proper wind-stopping cycling layer for cold weather, with super magical properties that let it wick the sweat away, let air through while still stopping air etc. etc. It’s terrible. I’m still cold when I wear it as a second layer, and it’s way too hot to wear in combination with my crappy Nike coat. I’ve tried it for two days now and it’s just not as good as my usual 2-3 layers. At least not for me. Experiment failed.

Another mishap happened to me today. I was cycling along as usual when I suddenly noticed my front left pannier hanging on only one hinge. This happens every once in a while if I hit a pothole or ramp too hard, so I stopped to re-hang it. But that’s when I noticed that the little hook that normally connects the pannier to the rack had just completely snapped off. I’m not entirely surprised by this: the hooks normally connect with two pins to the pannier and one had already broken off. I’ve had those panniers for 10 years. I guess it’s time for some new ones when I get back. In any case, I did some McGyvering with tie wraps to tie it to the rack, and it seems to be holding on for now.

 Every time I start cycling again after not having been on a proper ride in months, I simply forget how to cycle right. I just don’t naturally know how to pick the right pace. I always pick a gear or a cadence that’s too high and then I tire myself out. I have to make that mistake a few times at the beginning of every time until I eventually find my rhythm back. Today was the day where that kicked me in the ass in the worst possible way. Tomorrow is the designated ‘tough’ day, with a route that’ll go through the mountains and is longer than today. Today was supposed to be a relatively easy ride, but I managed to tire myself out long before lunch time, to the point where my muscles were pretty much useless and I could only go at really slow speeds. There’s probably several things that contributed to this, mainly me underestimating the nasty headwind I had all day and picking the wrong pace, but there are some issues with my bike as well. I noticed after about an hour in that the front brakes were hitting the front wheel again, so I had to loosen them up a little more. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to stop the wheel almost immediately when lifting up in the air and giving it a whirl. Another thing that may or may not have contributed to my crap performance today is that the chain is full of gunk and needs some fresh lube. I shrugged it off yesterday because the bike seemed fine then, but that was a much shorter ride. Today I passed a single bike shop, selling old lady bicycles. When I asked if I could borrow or buy some chain spray the guy told me he didn’t have any. I think my jaw literally dropped in real life. How in the bloody hell can a bicycle shop not have chain spray? I asked him again to make sure he heard me correctly, but he insisted he didn’t have any. Now, given that this was in the countryside, in the middle of nowhere, and I interrupted the guy while he was talking to some other guy, combined with the fact that my appearance is very foreign and his appearance was very cantankerous, I suspect he simply didn’t want to help me. So he either sucks at operating a bike shop or else he’s an asshole. Meh.

The morning cycle had tired me out so much that I took two really long breaks to give my muscles a chance to recover. The first didn’t do too much but after the second break I felt a little bit better. Before that I really felt as if my legs were just going to shake and give up. The only time they’ve ever done that was when cycling to the Fuji five lakes area on the first day of my first solo cycling trip. I thought I was more prepared now, but I guess not. After the second break it was no longer freezing cold, the wind had died down a bit and I had switched from the crappy cycling overlayer to my good old windcoat, which made me feel a lot better. Cold, wind and bad gear is not a good combination.

When I finally arrived at my destination, a lovely little town right at the end of a valley where the two mountain ranges meet, I did not expect to find a giant shopping mall with a 100-yen shop. It took away from the quaintness but also gave me an opportunity to buy chain spray and fake handlebar tape (roll of bandage tape).

Tomorrow it’s off into the mountains. It doesn’t actually seem too bad in terms of height or inclines based on Google Earth, but it is a long ride. I did finally manage to get a hotel for tomorrow, but it wasn’t easy. Might be an interesting story tomorrow.

Posted in Cycling | Leave a comment
← Sidebar