The homecoming

Things don't always go the way you expect them to go.

Cycling photos!

Yesterday morning I was actually relieved to find my bicycle intact at the hotel parking lot. After yesterday's tampering I had notified the hotel of the attempt and asked if there was any security footage. They said there wasn't any and were completely indifferent about the whole thing. Not very nice. I loaded up the bike and set out for Narita Airport Terminal 2.

A short and uneventful ride later I arrived at the terminal. I had to pass a security/passport check to cycle in to the airport, which was kind of funny because right after the check I took a wrong turn and ended up on a private parking spot somewhere without anyone coming after me or telling me off. I soon found the right way, and even managed to find a bigger elevator than last time so I could just take the bike up to the departures level without incident.

I managed to bag the bike without any problems and finished about half an hour before the check-in counter opened. I had been a bit worried that, because my spare bike tool was a lot smaller than my primary one, it wouldn't have enough leverage to loosen some of the bolts, but everything turned out ok. Everything fit fine, and I added some soft light-weight pieces of luggage to the bike bag in strategic places for padding. After a short wait the check-in counter opened and I checked in the bike and the dry bag containing three of my panniers, taking one of them with me as carry-on. Apparently my frequent flyer status is starting to pay off as my changed ticket is one level up from the lowest economy class. Unfortunately that did mean that there were only a limited number of seats and I had to settle for a center seat, for which the BA employee apologized profusely.

The slightly-better-than-economy-class seats were quite nice, but a fat Australian was sitting next to me and taking up more space than I felt comfortable with. On my other side was a middle-aged Japanese man who decided that I would be the perfect English conversation partner to practice his (excellent) English on. We talked a bit about traveling, and for some reason he kept asking me the price of everything I mentioned. I've noticed many Chinese people doing that right off the bat, but Japanese tend to be too polite to ask.

The Heathrow arrival started out alright, with me flashing through immigration and almost immediately getting my luggage back, but soon turned to disaster. After some tedious fiddling to get the loops out of the chain and the derailleur in the right position, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get my rear wheel to fit in the frame! Serious problems! In my mind I was already cycling back to my girlfriend's place for a glorious homecoming, but that's a bit difficult to do without a rear wheel.

I tried for maybe 10-20 minutes to put various amounts of force into trying to bend the frame a bit to get the wheel in, but decided that it was too risky and too hassleous to continue, so I headed over to the taxi stand to find a taxi. 95 FUCKING POUNDS!? No fucking way. That's typical of Heathrow I guess, you're going to be ripped off on transport no matter which way you travel. I told the driver fuck you ("No, thank you") and went online to find some cheaper services. The second company I called could do it for 25GBP in a small car, but I chose the MPV for 45GBP just in case my luggage would be too big to fit. I feel sorry for all the helpless tourists overpaying for those expensive taxis. That said, I'm sure I could've found a cheaper way to travel had I spent more time, but my patience was running thin.

The taxi was supposed to arrive after an hour but the guy showed after 20 minutes, having swapped jobs with someone else. The ride home was of course cluttered with traffic, and it took over an hour to get back. Cycling would not actually have been much slower, which is saying a lot given the long distance between my place and the airport. The driver was an interesting Afghan dude who had moved to London a few years ago. He had some good stories to tell, and of course some racist remarks about various ethnicities as we passed through said ethnicities' areas of London. It's good to get a different perspective on a place, though. The areas I considered below average are the ones he considered nice. A healthy reminder that I've had quite a privileged life and shouldn't complain so much.

Back home I scattered my luggage around the room and spent some time with my girlfriend before finally shutting down from jet lag. Silly organic body not being able to change sleeping rhythms on-the-fly..

Today I re-normalized myself. I did shopping, banking, taxes, laundry and got a haircut. I also sorted out the trip photos and selected some for a public album. Yes, the album is hosted on Facebook, which annoys me, but it annoys me even more to host photos on multiple places at once. I predict that the link to the album will probably stop working in 5 years or so, let's see how that will turn out.

I also unpacked my poorly re-packed bike again and gave the rear wheel another try. This time, putting a lot more force into it, I managed to get it in! (huehue) The gears are working fine on the rear sprocket, but the front one is broken somehow, and the front derailleur physically hits the sprocket and gets bent when shifting gears. It's going to need some serious bike shop attention, I'm afraid. But at least the frame wasn't bent out of shape too much. Although I should get a professional opinion on that too.

Closing thoughts:

  • The best days really were the days of the most suffering.
  • I feel more at home in business hotels than in my own room. I need to work on improving this situation by slapping some money at it.
  • There's a million things I need to do now that I'm back. I'm trying to avoid rushing through all of them and tiring myself out, because I know there will always be more things to do. New things always pop up after you've finished the old ones, so better to take your time and enjoy.
  • Must keep this momentum and improve my life.
Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

The twist ending

As I walked towards my bicycle and noticed the rain cover of my front bag missing and the front bag's zipper wide open, I remembered what the ice climbing guy told us a few months ago: "there's always something at the end of the trip that will come and bite you in the ass just when you think you're safe".

My bike tool got stolen. For some reason the thief opened my front bike bag, took the bag's rain cover and the bike tool that I had forgotten inside, but left my lights and the pump, which were surely worth more than an old rusty bike tool. Nevertheless, not having a bike tool means that I cannot take my bike apart, and that means that I can't take it on the plane tomorrow. CRISIS.

The first order of business in these kind of situations is always to get incredibly mad and angry and frustrated. I actually only realized that the bike tool was missing after a short cycle to a restaurant. Before realizing that I was merely slightly annoyed that on the very last day of my trip someone would steal something from me, but when I realized that it was in fact one of the most important things that I brought with me, I just got really really mad. Uselessly mad, I might add. As I'm typing this I'm still mad, but I have nowhere to direct it to except myself. I'm all ready to blame a population group or nationality in a blind fit of rage-ism, but fact is that I have no idea who did it. It's easy to point the blame at the foreigners, who are so incredibly superfluous in Narita compared to every other town in Japan, or to the homeless guy that I noticed in the afternoon, sleeping not too far from the parking lot from where my bicycle was standing, or the Japanese school children, who were always hanging out at the bus stop in front of the parking lot. Failing evidence I have no one else to blame but me, for leaving it in there in the first place. I'm angry at everyone, I blame myself and I'm disappointed in Japan for not being more safe. It's ridiculous, I know.

It was evening already, not a bike shop nearby, and even if there was it would have closed already. I'd have to leave too early in the morning so there was no way I could buy a new tool and get to the airport in time. Then I remembered: I brought a small spare bike tool! I always kept it in my backpack during the beginning of the trip but after a while it somehow got misplaced and I had no idea where it went. I turned my backpack and two of my panniers inside-out and didn't find anything, but finally I looked inside one of the pannier's side zippers and discovered it. I immediately ran to my bicycle to confirm that the bike tool does indeed fit on all the bolts, and it does! Crisis averted, but only barely. I took off the bike carrier bag and took it with me to my hotel. It's sad but I'm in full paranoia mode again. The time of trust is over. Perhaps it's all too well that I'm remembering this lesson now and not in London, where the consequences would be worse.

I really don't understand thieves. I just don't get what mindset a person has to be in to make it acceptable to claim someone else's thing as their own. Severe punishment is required for this kind of thing. Too bad the law doesn't allow it.

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

Post-trip thoughts

It's probably cheating to type this while the trip is not entirely over yet, but I feel like writing it down now. Only half a day to go now. I've got to cycle 9 kilometers to the airport tomorrow, then bag the bike up and deal with my luggage. Hopefully my luggage will be within the weight limits, but even if it isn't I can bring an extra piece of carry-on luggage, so I should be alright. It's done! It's over! I made it.

A to B

The ever-present that I get on a cycling trip is a sense of purpose: you have to get from A to B, by any means possible. Sometimes it's a day of suffering, sometimes it's a day of fun detours and random happenings. Some days the conditions are perfect but I don't feel like going out at all, and others I feel excited to get out there despite the rain and wind. The one constant in the trip is having to get from A to B. It's pure, simple, gratification. Every meter you cycle brings you closer to your goal. Sure, some routes may take longer or cause you to suffer more, but every pedal stroke brings you closer. There's no wrongs, just various degrees of rights. I really need this feeling in my life. Compared to every other life decision I am making, the knowledge that I know how to bring a cycling trip to a successful end is a great confidence booster.

"The last trip"

Before setting off I had toyed with the idea that this might be my last big cycling trip. Then, during the first few days (maybe even weeks) the determination inside me grew to make this officially the last trip. But as the trip neared its end I realized that I don't want to give up this feeling just quite yet. I'm still in awful physical shape, yet I am able to do a trip like this. You get stronger as the trip progresses. If the future allows it, I would love to do another trip like this. Maybe in Japan, but probably in another country. Like I said, the feeling of going from A to B, and more specifically, the feeling of having to fight to get from A to B, is something that's not so easy to give up. Let's see how I feel about this statement a couple of years from now.

The best

Kusatsu to Yudanaka, without a doubt. The ride through the mountains marked the end of the mountain stage and was by far the most scenic ride on this trip, and perhaps even my whole life. It was truly incredible to have been able to reach beautiful places like that on a bicycle loaded with 20kg's of luggage. The epitome of touring cycling.

The last three days before reaching Cape Soya, the northernmost point, were stunning. I changed the nature of the trip from a 'get there the easy way via major roads' attitude to a "let's take the scenic route and explore" attitude. At the same time the climate and scenery changed with me as I went further and further north and signs of civilization slowly faded away. It was at times desolate and monotonous, but also incredibly unique and special. The north of Hokkaido combines the climate of northern Europe with the Japan-ness of Japan. It's an odd combination and a rare one. These days returned to me that adventurous feeling I felt during my earlier cycling trips.

On my way down from Wakkanai to Sapporo I stayed one night at a beautiful camp site next to a beach. I'd just escaped the ~10C temperatures and strong winds from Wakkanai and, going south, the wind died and the temperatures rose. There was a conbini nearby and hardly anyone else camping, so it felt like the perfect place. I don't know why, but I just felt at peace there. Perhaps it was because the day afterwards I would have to actually start thinking about how to get back, making this the last night without real life problems.

Finally, I must mention the diving. Doing the whole PADI training in three days was quite the experience. I was more stressed out about it than I needed to be because in the end it turned out to be a lot of fun. The dive trips to the Izu peninsula were incredibly scenic and beautiful, and the diving gave me a sense of purpose which made me enjoy it even more.

The worst

The first thing that springs to mind is Tokyo.. The first day I cycled in Tokyo it was raining and miserable, the last day I cycled in Tokyo it was blazing hot and miserable. Either way it's not going to be enjoyable because of the traffic and the traffic lights. It's not that there's a huge amount of traffic actually, or that people drive more dangerously. Well, they do drive more dangerously, but only slightly so. It's just that it's so constant. There's never a moment when there's no traffic or no traffic lights, meaning that within a 50km radius of the center of Tokyo you'll be doing the stop-and-go with the traffic lights and the please-don't-hit-me with cars that are turning left without looking to see if there's a bicycle there. Tokyo is by far the worst place in Japan I've ever cycled.

There were rainy days on occasion, and dark and cloudy days too. I remember struggling against the wind in the north-west of Honshu, but somehow that didn't leave nearly as strong an impression on me as did the desolate stretches of road between Hakodate and Sapporo. Long roads with nothing of interest on them can still be fun if you've got the wind on your side and some nice music on your iPod, but if the wind is against you and the clouds are turning dark then you just don't feel very happy. Having to endure that for days on end really wasn't fun, and the main reason I'd rather cycle in other areas of Japan than in Hokkaido. If you're lucky, Hokkaido can be beautiful and serene, but if you're unlucky then you're stuck in the rain for a week with nothing else around you.

Thoughts

Cycling is easy when you have a clear goal. Getting to Wakkanai was my primary goal, so as long as I had that, I was able to go on. After that, getting back to Sapporo in three days became the primary goal, which was an unavoidable thing once I'd committed to it. But after Sapporo I began to realize that I had a great deal of choices available to me, now that I was back in the world of convenience. While I had planned to cycle back to Tokyo, the thought of that had been a casual, 'take-it-easy' thought, not an "I must do this or else I have failed" thought. It lasted for a couple of days but when the rain came in I just couldn't see any reason to continue. No more primary goal left.

The moments of suffering, at the moment of experiencing it, are the things you think you'll remember and that will make you hate cycling. But the truth is, after they're over, they just fade away from your mind immediately. Days where everything comes easy aren't always memorable either. It seems to be a combination of suffering and enjoyment that triggers the memory to store it and remember it in the long term. But it's not those specific memories that define you, it's the trip as a whole that counts.

Social momentum: while being in Atsugi I enjoyed a few days of meeting up with people for lunch or dinner, which just happened so naturally and comfortably that it reminded me of 5 years ago. Back then it was always easy to find someone to hang out with, and always a good place around to go to.I remember the periods of social momentum I had then, when day after day, week after week, we'd hang out together and do stuff without it ever getting too much. But these periods of social activity always end after a while, sometimes because people are busy or move away, and sometimes because I'm an introvert and reached my interaction limits. It seems that as I get older, there's simply less of these occasions in total. Such is life, I guess.

Tomorrow I'll be back in London. Unbelievable. There's many things that I'll miss from Japan, and there's many things that I am looking forward to in London. Therein lies my strength.

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Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

All good things

I haven't blogged for a couple of days. I feel slightly guilty, but I know it's inevitable. The trip is nearly over. Once I'm back in the UK I'll have less and less to report, and updates will become less frequent again. Perhaps that's a nice standard to set for my life: if I don't have anything to write about, I'm not living enough. Then again, sometimes you're living so much that there's simply no time to write.

Picking up from where the last post left off, I finished my open water dives and received my temporary PADI certificate (the real one will be sent to the UK). The weather was perfect on both days, and the dive sites very scenic. It's not often that you get to learn how to dive with Mount Fuji in the background and a lovely Japanese temple at the end of the bay. Unfortunately the underwater visibility was crap for both days and the water was quite murky. It didn't bother me as much as it did the other student, who was doing an Advanced Open Water dive which involved compass navigation. Not the most fun thing to do with near-zero visibility.

While the weather topside was about 30C, underwater it was perhaps around 20C. Perfect for a wetsuit, I think, but the Japanese disagreed. A lot of people were diving in dry suits and some were even wearing thick woollen socks. I did not regret my decision. The only time I got a little chilly was when we had to wait underwater near a rope while the aforementioned student attempted to do her navigation and return to us. But when it's 30C topside it's just a huge pleasure to cool down in the water. I still can't understand why people would wear wetsuits and be denied that feeling. You're going to be in the water, so at least get wet..

The second day of diving finished really quickly because I was the only student. The assistant dive instructor paired up with me as a buddy and together we finished the last (and trivial) few skills, and then I was allowed, and required, to lead the final part of the dive myself, while monitoring my buddy, the air supply and the direction. Air supply monitoring is really just basic math, made a bit trickier this time because I ended up using more air than I thought on the skill practice, which didn't match the amount we calculated on land. As my buddy and I headed out to explore the undersea world I was mentally recalculating the turning point of the dive. While I was doing that my buddy pinched me and told me to look back, and suddenly there was Doraemon! Well, a statue of Doraemon. Not long after that the dive instructor appeared out of nowhere with a camera and told us to pose with the statue. Perfect. After heading out just a little bit further we headed back, still with plenty of air in our cylinders.

Thus ends my diving adventure! The moments underwater are truly amazing, but you do have to work for it. Two hours in the car to get to the dive site, at least half an hour of equipment preparation, suiting up and planning the dive, and then after the dive you have to clean your equipment, dry it out and drive all the way back. I really don't see myself buying any equipment in the near future, except perhaps a mask and a dive computer.

After arriving back in Tokyo and dealing with my diving logbook I cycled back to Shin Okubo, the part of Tokyo that is also known as Korea town. As I mentioned before, the hotel didn't have any bicycle parking so I had to park near the station on an official parking area. After locking the bike I walked out and noticed the owner, an old man whom I saw a few days before. I asked him if I needed to pay anything, but he said since it was Sunday it was his day off, so it was free today. Odd that he would be around on his day off, but I'm not one to complain. When I came to pick up my bike the next day I had to pay double since I'd left it overnight. Karma back to neutral..

I really didn't like Tokyo this time around. The last time I stayed at a weekly mansion on the east side of Tokyo, in a very quiet area. Korea town was way too busy for my liking. It was pretty much impossible to go to any restaurants, even the standard chain restaurants, without having to queue up. The street between Okubo station and Shin Okubo station is always crowded and annoying to walk around in. I definitely won't be staying there again. Or anywhere else in central Tokyo for that matter; the hotels are way too pricey. I guess it didn't help that this time around I was on a bicycle either.

Monday morning I could finally sleep in a bit more after 3 days of getting up early to go diving. I checked out at a reasonable time in the morning, bagged up my bike and headed east. I had planned to maybe do some more sightseeing and photographing while cycling through Tokyo, but that morning I just wanted to get out of the city as quickly as possible. It was really hot that day, and the traffic didn't let up at all until perhaps the last 10 kilometers to Narita. The traffic lights were a major pain in the ass and seriously slowed me down, but at least this part became more manageable as I got farther away from Tokyo.

Narita is a sleepy town. There really isn't much to do around here, especially if you're by yourself, and especially especially if you want to avoid places where foreign tourists hang out. There's quite a lot of places specifically catering to foreigners around here, which, in my experience, is a bad sign. Any place with the word 'international' in it tends to be more crappy than your average Japanese place. Oddly enough I found myself in the McDonalds trying out one of Japan's world cup burgers. They've got 8 different items for 8 different countries. The Brazil burger was pretty damn good.

Today I went to Akihabara to do some shopping and to geek out in some of the odd shops they got there. I failed at geeking out! I'm completely out of touch with popular anime and manga. The things I like and/or watch tend to be from anywhere between 0 and 20 years ago, and I haven't exactly had a chance to watch much lately. On the western front I'm not out of touch, I just actively dislike most modern franchises (Transformers, Star Trek, Star Wars) and prefer those of my childhood. It seems that my geek life has come to a dead end, and even Akihabara is slowly shifting to newer, more popular stuff. Oh well, the Chinese ramen place that I used to visit is still there and was still damn good. There's even a second store now just a block away. It's good to see that some nice things don't disappear.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Japan: my flight leaves on Thursday morning. I've got some luggage to organize, an internet dongle to send back and perhaps some laundry to do. I'm not looking forward to Heathrow and London, but I'm immensely looking forward to seeing my girlfriend again, and the shitty room that I still call home. Time to pick up my life again! Thanks to this trip I've gained a lot of perspective, and I know which things I should be doing when I get back. I hope I can keep my current mindset going for a while after I return. With this mindset I can accomplish things.

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

Tokyo is mad and that's good

Despite the blogpost's title I did not spend a lot of time in Tokyo today. Instead my diving instructor took me out to a diving pool way out in the suburbs. Diving is good fun! But maintaining equipment and having a million components to think about is a big hassle. I really can't see myself buying any gear ever, except perhaps a mask. Everything else is mendoukusai. Anyway, pool dives were awesome and I went through a lot of skill tests to prove that I can dive. Having done all those, I'm quite surprised I managed to dive in Thailand without knowing what I know now. Maybe it's better that way.

Since we finished quite early because I was the only student today, my diving instructor let me do some paper tests at the dive shop after we got back. Since I aced those and we still had time, I just did the final exam as well: 48 points out of 50! Woohoo! I am now a cyclist and a diver. Well, after I do the skills in open water tomorrow and Sunday.

As the sun was starting to set I decided to celebrate my victory with a random cycle around Tokyo. That turned out to be an excellent, yet hectic idea. The first impression you'll get is that no matter where you cycle in Tokyo, the city is out to kill you. Taxi drivers cut you off all the time and if you cycle on the sidewalk you'll inevitably run into pedestrians and other cyclists. Well, that also happens if you cycle on the road. There's pedestrians everywhere and oncoming cyclists on the wrong side of the road no matter where you cycle. Lights on the bicycle seems to be entirely optional as well even if you cycle on the road into oncoming traffic. You'd think the sidewalk would be safer but today I saw pedestrians literally being terrorized by a mother + child on a giant bicycle, zigzagging at high speed through groups of pedestrians, somehow not hitting anything.

..which leads to the thought that my first impression was wrong; Tokyo is not dangerous at all because everyone knows what they're doing. Pedestrians have tons of experience avoiding bicycles and vice versa. Taxi drivers know exactly what the safety margin is to pass a bicycle. Once I'd accepted that, I started following some other cyclists and observing their behaviour. The mad cycle mom I mentioned above was one of them, another was a guy on a road bike without lights going really slowly in the middle of a car lane on a busy street while playing with his phone. Yet others I couldn't observe very long because they were coming towards me and passed me on all sides. But nobody ever seems to hit anything, which is kind of amazing.

I sort of aimed for Yoyogi park, and found myself there around twilight, eating a conbini bento on a bench while watching all the wacky people (mostly foreigners) do their silly sports and/or other things. The sky looked extremely threatening at some points but it somehow managed to stay dry. Apparently 50 kilometers north of here had massive thunderstorms. I headed back to my hotel via Harajuku and Shinjuku, pretty much the busiest and craziest roads I know of in Tokyo, and perhaps the whole world. It felt great to cycle there. Cycling in a city gives me a sense of confidence and awareness. I know how each place interconnects, I can see the relationship between things. Situational awareness is awesome.

Izu tomorrow. Diving. More skill practices. Hopefully good weather. We'll see.

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

A rainy day

Today was my last day in Atsugi. I wonder if I should feel melancholic but there's nothing to feel melancholic about. I've been back many times already, and have moved on and become a different person. Sufficient time has passed to make Atsugi just a pleasant stop along the way. But ultimately not my home. Or perhaps I was just annoyed by the rain and preoccupied with PADI.

I delayed my departure for as long as I could, mostly because it was raining quite heavily and it was expected to clear up later in the day, but also because I couldn't sleep last night and felt rather sleep-deprived. Eventually I had to bite the bullet though, and saddled up my bike for rain cycling. I managed without rainwear for about half of the trip. Since the rain was quite light my cycle shirt had a chance to wind-dry itself during the short periods of not-rain. It wasn't entirely without trouble, though. Somehow the handlebar tape on the left side has come off quite badly, the cadence sensor got wet and slippery from the rain and misplaced itself and the speed sensor thingie managed to get itself stuck in my rear wheel twice. To top it all off the many traffic lights along the way all seemed to turn red just before I arrived, and actually caused me to feel cold from the lack of activity.

Later in the day the rain actually got worse instead of better and I had to wear a raincoat, which implied slowing my speed down to prevent oversweating. Still, with the raincoat on it somehow became more manageable. I never went fast, but I was never in a hurry since Tokyo wasn't that far away.

The roads that I chose happened to follow the Odakyu line near-perfectly. I wanted to avoid the major roads (246 in particular) because I thought there'd be too much fast-moving traffic. The smaller roads were still quite large and full of traffic, but nothing too distressing. As I neared Tokyo I found a road that went straight up to my destination, diagonally crossing all the other major roads. To make things ever better, the road was often one-way and was specifically narrowed to prevent trucks and other large vehicles from entering, making it the perfect cycling road. As I approached Shinjuku I ended up on one of the major roads which I had been attempting to avoid, but it turned out to be brilliant as there were 3 lanes each way, and with the many cars parked in the left lane I had it pretty much to myself. Cycling: surprisingly practical.

After a quick visit to the government buildings I headed to my overpriced hotel. Upon arriving at the reception I found that the hotel had no bicycle parking, a car park which was a tower where they wouldn't let in bicycles and they wouldn't put my bicycle somewhere inside in the reception and/or luggage area either. Tokyo being Tokyo, there is absolutely zero space to park a bike outside the hotel (at least without it getting stolen by the police for illegal parking), so I had to cycle to the nearest train station which had a bicycle parking area. It's not that big a deal really; the parking area is quite close and only costs 100 yen per day, but what kind of pissed me off is how the hotel staff were complete dicks about it. In every single place I've stayed at during this trip, hotel staff were always extremely helpful and nice to me, especially when it came to giving my bicycle a good home. But these Tokyo-ites just flat-out refused to do anything. They're certainly not obligated to help me in any way, as they also made very clear by pointing out the exact rules and terms, but it certainly doesn't make me feel any better about staying here. I'm already overpaying for an average-at-best hotel purely for the location, the least they could do is act a little nicer. Anyway, I'll leave the complaints for the booking.com review.

PADI pool dive tomorrow! I'm still quite skeptical about PADI. The book does three things in about equal amount: try to get you to buy expensive diving equipment, try to get you to spend more money on additional PADI courses, and actually teaching you how to dive. It also comes with two DVDs that are quite useless. I tried to watch the first one in real-time but just couldn't stand the cheesiness and shitty slapstick humour. There's only a few bits that are useful, and those are the visual bits where they show you how to work your BCD/regulator/etc. The rest is just repetition of what the book teaches you, performed by extremely bad actors. All I want to do is dive! Leave all the other crap until later... or never.

Wow, I managed to rant about many things in this post, kind of unexpectedly. Anyway, all the bad things are merely preparation so I can experience more good things. It's all going according to plan.

Posted in Rant , Spirit of Japan 2

Night rider

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Today was a productive, yet insanely expensive day. I booked PADI, which unfortunately forces me to stay in the Tokyo area if I want to do it in English (and on short notice), meaning more moneys flying away to hotels. I could have camped, perhaps, but sitting in a leaky tent in the rain just isn't the perfect environment for studying. And study I must, cause it's a damn big book. Although I have to say, I finished about 70 pages of it and so far it's been ridiculously easy. You'd have to be very special not to be able to understand chapter 1 of the PADI book.

So, with PADI booked and hotels taken care of for the next week or so, I can now plan the return journey. Staying in the Tokyo area after PADI will just drain my wallet real quick, so I'm planning to head off towards Narita and maybe the coast, to hang out there either in my tent or some cheaper hotels until my flight (which I haven't changed yet :S). If the weather's good then perhaps I can get some swimming time in. That'd be nice.

Myuh.

 

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

Shonan

The Shonan coast, perhaps my favorite area in the whole world. Well, parts of it. The coastline gets nicer as you travel more westwards. If you head eastwards you will find more pretentious hipsters, more rich assholes and more foreigners. Those categories tend to overlap. It also gets a lot, lot busier, with constant traffic jams on the weekend and all restaurants being overcrowded. Seriously annoying. Enoshima appears to be the focal point of it all. Everything east of Enoshima is overcrowded, rich and ridiculous, everything further west is slightly more normal, for whatever 'normal' means in this context.

The rain that had been falling down constantly for the last 3 days finally stopped. The clouds won't let up, and the rain's expected to start again tomorrow, but at least the late afternoon was free of rain, so I took the opportunity to cycle my newly rebuilt bike around a bit. After taking it out of the bike bag I somehow managed to create a loop in my chain again, but somehow managed to fix it myself this time. I don't even quite know what I did, it just seems that if you spend time fiddling with it you'll eventually discover a magic solution. I'll need a few more tries before I'm able to consciously know what I need to do to fix it. Oh well, got results.

No rain, a flat road, a light bike and a well-oiled chain make for a great ride! The temperature was perfect too, although it's definitely getting more humid lately. I zigzagged a bit around Atsugi and ended up heading towards Hiratsuka and my usual spot on the beach. There were less clouds near the seaside, and even some blueness in the sky. With Oshima in the distance and some nice cloud formations I had a great moment of peace on the beach. No matter where I am in life, if I want peace I will think back to the times that I came to this beach. So many times, day or night, sun or rain, summer or winter. I feel privileged and lucky to still be able to cycle here. The feeling of peace has mostly been internalized already and has taken on a meaning of its own inside my brain, disconnected from the actual physical location. But it feels good to strengthen (recharge?) that feeling with some actual experience.

I haven't had much luck on the accommodations front. Weekly mansions are apparently now called 'flexstay' and are no cheaper than a business hotel. Business hotels get progressively more expensive the closer you get to Tokyo. Even camp sites are ridiculously expensive. I found one in Hiratsuka, but it charges 3000 yen per night for a tent spot. Hell fucking no. Staying at random parks, seasides or river banks is definitely an option, provided that 1) I'm on the move so I won't have to camp at the same spot twice, and 2) it stops raining. Given that I'm about to do PADI and that the rainy season is here, neither seems very likely. Oh well. Something will happen.

何とかなる。

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

In the end

The Shinkansen is an amazing thing. Today was my first time riding it alone. It really is ridiculously fast and smooth. And EXPENSIVE. For some reason there were no non-reserved seat carriages, so I had to buy a reserved seat ticket. Much money was spent, but then you do get 3 hours of pure SPEED. With even more money going towards the business hotel foundation today I am strongly considering finding a camp site in Tokyo for a week or so. But the weather has turned extremely sour: it's been raining all day, muchly.

I'm sad that the cycling part of the trip is over. Well, mostly over, because I still have to get to the airport, and my preferred way would be to cycle there. Cycling means no hassle with carrying luggage into a train or entrusting a third party to potentially break it in transport, while costing you money. But I'm glad that I stopped when I did. The next week would have been terribly depressing if I still had to cycle back, and taking a break week wouldn't have made sense either. I can pretend all I want that it's always spring, but eventually the rainy season will start and the cycling season will end.

The question of whether I regret stopping has popped up in my head. I like to roll it around in my mind because I know that I regret nothing. When you're traveling alone you can follow your whims and do whatever feels right at the moment. There is no hesitation needed and no awkward feelings about the choice you made, unless you already know that you made the wrong one. In this case there was no hesitation in my mind and no insecurity after making the decision. Everything still makes sense. I can see the path through this part of my life extremely clearly, and I can see many potentially good paths happening in the aftermath, when I get back to the UK. It's easy to lose sight of where you're going if you're focused on your job all day every day. A very cute girl once said: "adaptation is part of travel". I'd like to contribute to that with: "traveling creates perspective".

That very same girl also said "You'd better do PADI so we can go diving together, or else don't bother to come back!". So I'll be in the Tokyo area a little longer, studying the PADI book and hopefully discovering cheap places to stay in this ultra-urban area. The final stage of the trip has now begun :D.

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

Looking for freedom in all the wrong places

Today, I quit. And it was good.

Sleeping on the ferry was good and yet bad. Good because I had the entire sleeping hall to myself, and the standard ferry pillow was quite nice. Bad because I didn't get enough sleep since the ferry arrived quite early. I was quite groggy when I passed reception and they told me to wait until all the vehicles had left the ferry. ALL the vehicles! I waited for 45 minutes before I was finally allowed to take my bike out. I was quite annoyed.

Setting off from Hachinohe the weather was near perfect: sun, warmth, blue skies and not much wind. As my annoyance over the ferry faded away I gradually began to realize that I was free. I've already achieved my goal, I've received permission from my wonderful girlfriend to spend more time cycling, and I'm fit enough to go wherever I want. No stress, no goals. Just cycling to wherever I want. As long it's kinda in the right direction to get back.

I was soon punished for feeling this whimsical by a road that kept going up and down with hardly a flat stretch anywhere, and soon the wind picked up and forced me to abandon my newly bought hat, which keeps flapping up at every gust of wind. Perhaps the flipside of the whole freedom/no stress/no goals thing is that my tolerance for bad things goes down. Why face the wind and the hills if you've got no purpose? I don't know if it was mental or physical or both, but I had a pretty hard time today. Pretty hard, but not nearly hard enough to make me give up.

Honshu is just so.. normal. It all feels so beautifully familiar compared to Hokkaido. No more long roads with empty plains and fields of grass: we're back to short stretches of windy roads, rocks everywhere and rice. And don't forget the vending machines, there's so many vending machines, it's like being in cycling heaven. The difference between Hokkaido and Honshu is like the difference between driving a Tesla and driving any petrol-powered car. Anyway, now that I'm back in Honshu, everything just felt so cozy. I knew I wouldn't have to worry about a place to stay any more: I passed at least 5 campsites today, and the mobile wifi thingie has coverage in Honshu so it's fairly easy to discover nearby hotels and camp sites.

After a tough but scenic cycle I arrived in Kuji a bit after lunch time, slightly worn out and with sand my eyes because the wind kept getting stronger and it was rather sandy in the area. I didn't pass a single conbini since leaving Hachinohe, and even Kuji was pretty much a dead town where everything was closed. I found one decent-looking restaurant and had lunch there.

During lunch I checked the weather report, and it wasn't looking good. I already knew that rain was coming, but decided to wait until lunch time to make a decision on how to proceed, because I didn't know when the rain would get close to me. It had gotten quite close already, but what was way worse: the forecast predicts a full week of rain all over the area in Japan I would be cycling through.. My level of enjoyment of rainy day cycling is pretty much zero, so that didn't please me at all. I was planning to take an early stop for the day and then hopefully cycle on the next day after the rain had passed, but it looks like even if I took an extra break day, it wouldn't make much of a difference. The most logical next step my mind came up with was to simply call it quits.

So that's what I did. Having decided that I would cycle no further for the day, I inquired at some hotels for their room rate, but nothing really cheap came out of that. I also asked them if they could accept my bike bag and panniers to be sent to Atsugi, where I would pick it up later. But the kuroneko pick-up points all said that there was a size limit and they weren't sure if my bike bag would be over-sized, and I would have to go the main kuroneko office, which was several kilometers out of town. I didn't really like that, so I went to nearby post office instead. They also said they had a weight limit, but the price was way lower than the one kuroneko quoted, so with that I was convinced to bag the bike today.

That said, I first had to take care of a shitty tiny problem: one of the screws in my rear rack got stuck and won't turn any more, so I went to a nearby bike shop to ask for help. The bike-shop-old-man was very friendly and had it out in no time. He even hammered on the screw in such a manner that I can still use it. Magic. Then he asked for a picture of me and my bike in front of his shop. Apparently a lot of touring cyclists go through Kuji on their way north or south, and he's been taking photos with many of  them. Nice one, bike-shop-old-man!

With that done, he told me to go the kuroneko main office just to be on the safe side. It would be a shame if I bagged the bike at the post office but it was too large for them to accept. So I cycled down to the kuroneko office instead, where the people were very friendly and gave me tons of bubble wrap to wrap around my bike's sensitive parts. Bagging the bike turned out to only take 35 minutes, including reorganizing of luggage. The kuroneko people asked me if it was okay to stack stuff on top of the bike, and I had to very firmly tell them that no, that was not possible, and it should be transported standing up. Once they understood that they were very forthcoming and showed me how they would transport it, in its own little cubicle. Excellent. What's not excellent was the price, which turned out way higher than the initial quote I had received. They kindly waited until after I fully bagged the bike to tell me that, so I wasn't about to say no any more..

With the bike out of the way, I put on my silly hat, backpack and Apple-shoulder-bag-which-is-now-my-clothes-bag, and walked back towards the station. It was a good walk, and I felt extremely free, perhaps more free than I felt in the morning after coming off the ferry. It's a strange thing, freedom. You can never quite grasp it. I made it back to the station with just enough time to catch the next train, which is a big thing in Kuji because there's only a train every 2 hours or so. The train was mostly populated by noisy school children, who kept being noisy all the way back, occasionally commenting on the strange gaijin sitting in the train with them. The train followed the exact same path that I'd cycled today, undoing my progress and rewinding my time.

The train ride took a good 2 hours, during which my knees hurt like hell because of the cramped seats. My knees never hurt during cycling, but they always start to hurt in the evening after keeping them in the same position for too long. I guess they can finally have a break now.

Arriving at Hachioji station, I realized that Hachioji station really is just the Shinkansen station, and there's not much else around here, since the real town is centered around Hon-Hachioji station. Out of the three main hotels, one was obviously overpriced, one was full and the last one only had a twin room for which they overcharged. So I wandered a bit further away from the center and came across the 'Ohshita Hotel'. Lovely. A cheapass, sleazy business hotel, but it's cheap. It also doesn't have airconditioning, which sucks. But it's only for one night. Tomorrow I'll take a Shinkansen back to Tokyo/Atsugi. The bike trip may have ended but I'll be in Japan for at least another week. Plenty of time to celebrate the (former)homecoming.

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2