Tips for touring cycling in Japan

The very first touring trip I did in Japan was in 2007, and I've done many more since then. Over the years I've gathered a whole bunch of data as well as personal experiences that I thought would be useful to put into a blogpost. Hopefully someone will find this useful. I tried to categorize things a bit, so here goes.

The language

First, to get the obvious thing out of the way, I speak Japanese and can read enough of it to be useful for a cycling trip. I think this is a huge help for me, but I have no evidence of the contrary because I don't know anyone who's cycling in Japan without knowing the language. Japanese people are extremely helpful and friendly and will do anything they can to help you find a camp site or point you in the right direction. I can't even count the number of times random people have come up to me and given me food or drinks. They're great people. That said, I don't doubt that being able to speak Japanese will reduce the barrier to conversation and make it easier for people to connect with you. Quite frequently people ask me where I came from and where I'm going, how much kilometers I'm doing in a day, etc. I can imagine such a conversation is more difficult to start if it's in English, since a lot of Japanese people are still shy about their level of English. I'd recommend learning at least a few words and phrases for basic conversation. Words like 'camp site', where', 'left', 'right' are hugely useful. Still though, in this day and age, if you have offline maps and a bunch of placemarks on your phone then you can easily get away with not knowing any Japanese. I'd still recommend learning at least a bit of it though. Trips are more fun if you can talk to the locals.

Trip planning

First tip about trip planning: don't :) . That is, don't plan your every day schedule way in advance. I usually plan the starting point and destination and roughly the route/area I want to go through, but I don't make detailed plans until one or two days before the actual cycle. That gives me the freedom to change course or even go somewhere completely different, or linger in a place that I like a bit longer. Touring is absolutely more fun this way.

Japan allows this kind of trip style because 1) hotels and camp sites are readily available wherever you are and rarely full, and 2) there's always the option of sending your bicycle via Kuroneko delivery service to the airport (or anywhere) if you end up running out of time. Kuronekos are everywhere, and while your bike is in transit you can catch the Shinkansen back. One thing I will definitely advise against is to bag your bike and carry it with you in trains. I'm not even sure if the Shinkansen allows it, and besides, a touring bike is heavy, and so is your luggage. Cycle as much as you can, all the way to the airport if possible. Bagging the bike never takes me more than 2 hours even in the worst case scenario so if you arrive at the airport a little early that's plenty of time.

Airports and flights

Take a direct flight! Direct flights mean less people handling your bicycle, and that's absolutely worth the extra cost of a direct flight. You don't want your bike to be broken on arrival. I took Turkish airlines to Japan once, with a stopover in Istanbul, and my bicycle frame got bent on the flight in and the flight out. Never again.

If you're using a soft case, on the last day of cycling, try to carry around some spare bits of cardboard to pad your bike's sensitive bits with. Always carry a roll of duct tape with you. I've actually hardly ever had to use it, but feel comforted just having it with me. Be sure to get the airport people to put a fragile tag on your bike, and preferably a 'this side up' tag as well. I also duct-tape a giant arrow on each side of my bag to make sure it's obvious which side is the top.

Day to day cycling - what to expect

Japan does not have a lot of dedicated cycling paths, and in areas where there dedicated paths, they're not always right for touring. Japanese cycling paths are made for mamachari bikes. They're often narrow, bumpy, and cross a lot of roads with a little bump on entry and exit. Definitely not ideal for touring. I'm not saying you shouldn't go on these, because sometimes you'll end up on a beautiful stretch of coastal cycling road, devoid of cars and with a beautiful view that you couldn't get from the road. But when it doesn't work out it's perfectly ok to head back onto the main road and make some speed. I've never seen a cycling path in a mountainous area so chances are that even on a touring bike you'll be able to make better progress on the main road than on a cycling road. It's a tradeoff though, just give it a try. Also, most useful things, such as conbinis (convenience stores), vending machines and restaurants tend to be on the main road, not the cycling path.

That leads to probably the most important tip I can give you: always stay on the road! You're allowed to cycle on sidewalks in Japan, and occasionally, in the countryside, there'll be a beautiful wide sidewalk with no one on it. But don't go there! Because you'll regret it. The sidewalk will get narrower and narrower until your wide touring bike won't fit any more and you'll have to carry it over some barriers to get back onto the main road. Sidewalks are also always bumpier and have drops whenever a road intersects with it. Lastly, it's just more dangerous, because inevitably there'll be a point where you'll be rejoining the main road, and you need to make very sure that drivers see you when you're going from sidewalk to main road.

The safest and most comfortable position for a touring cyclist is on the road. Close to the left-most bit, but not too close. On very narrow roads I tend to be well to the right of the white line to make sure that cars don't attempt to pass me when I think it's too dangerous for them to pass me. On wider roads I try to stick to the left of the white line if possible, leaving myself some space to maneuver around obstacles. There's always grates, little bumps or other things that suddenly pop up that you'll have to evade. If you leave yourself enough space to do that then that's no problem.

Quite frequently a road's asphalt is worn down by the countless trucks passing over it, and will have a little valley where each truck's tires hit the asphalt, pushing it to the side and creating a narrow ridge right where bicycles usually feel at home. It's flat-out dangerous to cycle on this ridge. Stay to the right of the it and just drive in the valley, even if that means taking a wider line. Cars and trucks will have to navigate around you and it will be harder for them to overtake, but in my opinion it's their fault that the road ended up like that anyway, so that kinda balances out.

Day to day cycling - some numbers

Distance: I rarely do less than 60 kilometers per day, even on hilly days. The days that I do less than 60 km is because I am setting up for the next day, or because there's an interesting thing I want to see on the way. If you don't have any other plans or things blocking you, plan to do at least 60 a day. The most I've done was 160 km in one day but that was a fluke: just a very long coastal road with the wind in the right direction and not much interesting to see along the way. I wouldn't recommend doing more than 100 kilometers a day. Probably around 80 km is my personal sweet spot. It largely depends on how hilly the terrain is as well. If you're climbing all day then 60 kilometers is already quite an accomplishment.

Speaking of climbing: inclines! Most major coastal roads in Japan don't have inclines over 6%, and 6% is definitely doable by even an unfit person in the lowest gear of his/her touring bike. But there's a lot of qualifiers in that statement: most, major and coastal. You'll definitely encounter inclines of around 10% if you go into the mountains or on smaller roads, or even some coastal roads in more rural areas of Japan. There's something even worse though, something that you're very likely to encounter on a touring trip: the slopes that lead up to a hotel or youth hostel. Those are the absolute worst, and can easily get up to 15-20%. If you can avoid it, don't ever push your bike up a hill! You'll be using different muscles, which may feel like it's less of an effort, but only for a very short while. After that you'll end up being even more exhausted. Just select the lowest gear you have and start cycling, even if it's only at walking pace. If you feel like you can do more, just slowly work your way up the gears as you're climbing. But more often than not you'll find yourself being overly optimistic about what gear you can do. Just take it easy.

For that matter, try not to stand on the pedals. I know it looks cool and it's a great way of powering over a small hill, but hills are seldom small in Japan, and when you're touring you need that energy for the rest of the distance. Just keep a steady rhythm and a sustainable pace.

Tunnels

I hate tunnels so much. They're the absolutely worst place to cycle, yet they're completely unavoidable in Japan. Even if you're sticking to the coast, some coastal areas are just so mountainous that the only way to get from A to B is a single road with at least one long tunnel on it. Expect tunnels of at least 500 meters, but tunnels of up to 2-3 kilometers long are also not uncommon. They tend to be quite narrow: cars coming up behind you will have difficulty passing you if there's oncoming traffic. It'll also be cold and very noisy, so you won't be feeling comfortable in there. Dirt and debris tends to get left behind in tunnels so the side of the road tends to be more difficult to cycle on.

Before entering, always turn on your lights, preferably in super-annoying blink mode. You can't afford to have a car not see you. The front light is important too because some idiots like to overtake in tunnels, and the last thing you want is an oncoming car hitting you full frontal. Most tunnels in Japan are somewhat lit, but a lot of drivers still don't turn their lights on in tunnels, so it's up to you to make them aware that you're there. Take a fairly wide line, staying away from the debris on the side, and actively block drivers from overtaking you if you think there's not enough space to overtake. Sometimes when I know a long tunnel is coming up I stop just before the tunnel to put on my wind-blocking coat, which makes tunnels a lot more comfortable.

Don't worry about inclines. Tunnels are almost often at the top of a climb, or only have a very slight incline. If you do end up in a tunnel with a bit of a climb, don't worry about cars too much, just take it easy going up the hill. It's very easy to feel stressed out about exhausting yourself in a tunnel, but it's worse to actually exhaust yourself and have to stop to catch your breath. Slow and steady.

Lastly, the best way to deal with tunnels is to not take them. Quite often there's a side road that will go around the mountain or hill that the tunnel is crossing. These old roads are often closed down or converted to bicycle-use only. They might be a bit more of a climb, but they're always worth it compared to the stress you get from cycling in tunnels. Alternatively, when you're doing pre-cycling-day research, try to find a route that avoids the tunnels altogether. Even if it's up to 10 kilometers detour I'd say it's still likely to be worth it. Think about it: a lovely path that follows a river slowly upwards over 10 kilometers, with vending machines and beautiful nature along the way, or being cold and miserable in a tunnel for several kilometers? I know which one I prefer. Lastly, do watch out for mountain roads with crazy steep inclines.

Places to stay

Business hotels. Business hotels are awesome. They offer private rooms for affordable prices. They're always clean and predictably always the same no matter where you go. If something says business hotel then you know exactly what you're going to get. I know it's not as glamorous as staying in a traditional ryokan or camping out in the wild, but it's just so damn convenient. During all my trips the places I stayed at the most were business hotels. Use the booking.com app using the free wifi you get from 7-11 or Family mart to book a business hotel nearby. If you book on the day you arrive you sometimes get discounted rates too.

The booking.com app is not the cheapest though, since the cheaper business hotels tend to not do booking.com. It's usually enough to just cycle to a town's train station, where there will inevitably be all the business hotels. If you're in a big town or city there'll be loads and one of them will have a free room. If you're in a small town there might only be one, but that will also have a free room since small towns seldom get a lot of visitors. Unless it's golden week. Fuck golden week. Do not go to Japan during golden week, or pre-book your stays during golden week, preferably to be far away from any tourist spot. It just gets crazy busy.

I should talk about ryokans (Japanese inns). They're... quirky. You never know what you get if you stay at a ryokan. The major plus for me is that, whenever I'm traveling in Japan and really can't find anything else, there's somehow always a ryokan nearby. The best way to find one is to ask the locals when you're at your destination. They tend to be old, family-run, sometimes with onsen. The rooms are tatami and everything creaks and there's usually no other guests around. Or perhaps that's just my experience. It's quite fun, but also... challenging, somehow. Still, would recommend.

Hostels: use Japan Youth Hostel. They're great. Run by Japanese people, always in useful locations in interesting buildings, and you meet a lot of local people there with interesting stories to tell. Don't go to any other international/youth hostel. They tend to be run by foreigners and attract the cheapest kind of tourist.

A trip wouldn't be fun if it was just business hotels and hostels, though. Sometimes you'll want to go camping! There's a lot of camping sites in Japan. In earlier trips I used to ask around for 'a place to set up my tent for one night', avoiding the words 'camp site', because camp site in Japanese implies making a camp fire, doing a barbecue and generally being loud and annoying, which no local wants. But if they see that you're a traveler who will be out of their way again the next morning you might get some interesting recommendations. I've camped (with permission) in front of a hotel, at a temple and at a private camp site on an island which was not officially open yet because it was "still too cold". All fantastic experiences.

If you're pre-planning your endpoint for the day then I recommend checking Google Maps for camp sites in the area and marking them on offline maps, then you don't have to ask the locals. Or at the very least you'll know that there's options. During my last trip I marked all camping sites on the entire route I was thinking of taking, from beginning to end, so I knew I always had options. I was betrayed once by a camp site that did indeed exist and was available, but it was crazy expensive, so I had to go somewhere else. That's way worse than a camp site that's closed, cause you can always camp out at a closed camp site if you're quiet and don't cause trouble.

..which leads to the last option: camping out at places other than official camp sites. It's a great way of saving money, but really, I wouldn't do it. Your average 'sanctioned' camp site will cost about 1000-1500 yen, and a shitty business hotel (which is way more comfortable than any camping) will set you back around 5000 yen. Not crazy prices. But if you do find yourself in the middle of nowhere with no hotels, hostels or camp sites nearby, there's always options. Rivers are your best bet. They snake through the landscape and often leave free areas around them that are great for setting up a tent. Under a bridge might seem like a good idea, but I'd recommend against that. The one time I tried that it was just damn noisy and I was worried that someone would show up and chase me away. Beaches are also a good option, but it's tricky to find a remote one that also has a safe (eg. not-sea-level) area that you can put your tent on. In any case, a little prep work means you can avoid all this hassle.

Seriously though, there are loads of cheap hotels in Japan, even in the middle of nowhere, and they almost always have availability. I take my tent with me because I enjoy the flexibility and I enjoy camping every once in a while, but if you're not into that you'll have no trouble at all just sticking to hotels, youth hostels and ryokans.

Weight / Loadout

Short answer: don't worry about carrying too much, and be sure to put a fair bit of it in your front panniers, so that your bike will feel nice and stable.

You'll inevitably be carrying too much things with you. Tools you don't need, too many spare tires, too many clothes, that one camera or lens you think you might use once but end up never using, and so on. Rather than forcing yourself to to go ultra-lightweight, just pack what you need, or whatever fits comfortably inside your panniers. In my case I've got:

  • One front pannier for tent and sleeping bag - full.
  • One front pannier for only clothes - full.
  • One rear pannier with sleeping mat and bike stuff (spare tires, pump, rain wear, duct tape etc.) - maybe 80% full.
  • One rear pannier with day stuff: wind coat, food, bike lock, sometimes a DSLR for easy access - maybe 70% full.
  • A backpack with electronics and documents and things, bound down on top of the rear rack.
  • The soft travel bag that the disassembled bike goes into is quite huge and goes under the saddle. I used to have a smaller bike bag and a bigger sleeping mat, but they swapped places.

Weight really does not matter as much as you think. You're going to be on a heavy bike regardless of how many kilograms you manage to shave off, and you will be suffering when you go uphill, but that's what gears are for. And muscles. Your muscles will adjust within a few days and then start getting stronger at your own pace, so all you really need as a minimum is a bit of muscle that will keep you comfortable in the lowest gear at the steepest incline. Losing maybe 10% of your luggage weight is not really going to help you a lot with that. It might make you a little bit slower, but then you've already committed to being on the bike all day. Doing an extra 30 minutes or doing 5 kilometers less per day is perfectly doable.

Even if you've decided to not carry a tent, sleeping bag and/or sleeping mat with you, I'd still recommend taking four panniers with you. The reason for this is that the balance of the bike will just be so much better with a bit of weight in front. If you've got two ultra-heavy rear panniers and a backpack on top of that you'll end up with a dangerously light front wheel, which will trip you up at some point, most likely when you're putting in some leg muscle at the start of a steep incline, but also at higher speeds after a nice downhill. My bike feels a million times better with two panniers at the front pushing the front tire to the road.

Weather

The weather.. is fantastic! Usually. That said, do not cycle on rain days. Seriously. If you can avoid it in any way, don't cycle on rain days. It's just not fun, at least not for me. I ride a bicycle to have fun, enjoy and see beautiful scenery and sights along the way. The rain ruins all of that. Better to wait a day and see things when they're dry. That said, I have been foolish enough to cycle during the rain from time to time. From the last trip, 3 out of 30 days were rain cycle days, and 2 of those 3 were avoidable. (The unavoidable day was cycling to the airport, for which I still preferred rain cycling to bagging the bike and taking a train).

If the rain is only a little then you can probably get away with cycling. It's very unpredictable though. I was frequently checking the weather report at convenience stores during my last trip, and even when the rain radar showed that the rain was over there were still some scattered showers, some strong enough to seriously soak me. But light rain dries very quickly thanks to the wind, so if you're in a fairly built-up area you can risk cycling in light rain and stop at a convience store or restaurant or cafe when it gets heavier.

Rain coats don't help in heavy rain. If you're cycling on a touring bike you will sweat, and if you're wearing a raincoat you'll sweat more and faster. Wear it or don't wear it, you'll be uncomfortable either way. Seriously, just don't cycle. Spend a day walking around town, catch up with blogging or go see a famous temple or shrine. You can even take a train to another town and sightsee there.

Your bike won't like rain either. My panniers are fairly waterproof but still the bottom bit gets a little soaked. And everything gets dirty. Mud gets everywhere when it's raining, all over the panniers, in the chain, in my shoes. It's a good idea to clean the chain and re-grease it after a day of rain cycling.


Yup, I think that's all I can think of right now. Most importantly:

  • Always stay on the road. Don't take the sidewalk. Don't go out of the way for cars. They need to go out of the way for you.
  • Never cycle in the rain. Because wet.
  • Don't plan ahead. At least not too much. Randomness is part of the challenge :)

Have fun!

IMG_0245PS


Update 2016/06/12: fixed some wording, added Weight / Loadout section.

 

Posted in Cycling , Japan | Tagged , , ,

Japan eartquake observations

There's a couple of things that I want to write about the 8.9 magnitude Japanese earthquake. I've contacted most of the people I know in Japan, and they're all fine. I'm checking online media, and there's 3 events I want to mention here. These events made me: amuses/surprised, flabbergasted, and very angry.

  1. A friend checked in to a water purification plant on foursquare (which is usually used for restaurants/cafes).
  2. The #prayforjapan Twitter tag
  3. Facebook comment  made by a friend of a friend on the situation in Japan: "They got what they deserve !it's god damn them n punished !"

I was sort of amused by the first item. Foursquare is social media, usually used for less-than-life-threatening situations like going to a cafe or a restaurant. The fact that it's now being used to check in to a water treatment facility was amusing at first, but then I realized that it's also a way of letting people know where you are, and where would be a good place to go in case of a major earthquake.

Comment on 2: I'm pretty much the functional equivalent of an atheist. I am not without emotion, so I can appreciate that people want to stick together and draw hope from being in the same situation by being united under the #prayforjapan tag on Twitter. But it's not God who created the fucking buildings that withstood the earthquake. It's men. It is thanks to fucking awesome technology that there are not more victims to this eartquake. God had nothing to do with it. I support Japan and the Japanese people with all my heart, but I sure as hell don't want to pray to any god to show my support.

But it's point 3 that really gets my blood boiling. This guy then proceeded to elaborate his statement:

When they slaughter our people, included baby ,and my great gran , we lost our family name, thankfully someone pick up my dad on the street , otherwise my family won't be exist .

Apparently a massive disaster is a great time to hold war grudges from over half a century ago. I really wish that people would not think in this way. This comment was made on Facebook, shared only with friends and friends of friends, which might serve as mitigating circumstances for some people. I really don't like this way of thinking. It's just disgusting, and people who genuinely feel this way are worthless human beings that do not understand at all what it means to be human. To the guy that made this comment: fuck you.

 

Posted in Japan , Thoughts | Tagged ,

Do I hate Japan?

A while back I received an e-mail from a Japanese person, telling me how much he disliked Japan. His perspective was an interesting counterpoint to my own, and I blogged about what I liked about being in Japan. Yesterday I received another e-mail from the person I'll refer to as T.

Do I hate Japan? The answer to the title is obviously a yes for me. I think Japan is not fun. This is the biggest problem. I used to live in America for 6 years. I thought it was heaven there. I  wouldn’t have had a problem living there for the rest of my life. Actually I wanted that. School is not fun at all. When I lived in America, my place always had dance parties like every month. Now if we have this every month, school would be a little better. And you would be able to work hard for that day. There is no goal here to make students work harder. Another one is that kids in Japan play games too much. I think one reason to that is Japan doesn’t have a backyard big enough to play outside. And even if we have parks there usually small and full of sand not grass. I think the environment is too different. People can’t make big backyards because Japan is too crammed and there is no space to make such place. Not just that. If you want a big backyard it would cost you a lot.  How do you think about it so far? Boring? That’s what I would think. Japan is a place that would be fun visiting but it’s not good to live here. The only good thing in Japan is probably the technology. (Which these days there not the best anymore.) In Japan everything is too strict. Maybe that’s another reason why Japan is not fun. We can’t get license when were sixteen. And wherever we go there’s something like a time limit set by parents. Maybe that’s not just Japan but still we don’t have much freedom as we do in America. In America I felt free. After writing this essay I realized how much I hate Japan again

Imagine that you're suddenly spending six years in a foreign country that does things very differently from your own, and you like it. Then you have to go back to where you came from, but suddenly everything seems different. You can't appreciate things in the same way that you could before living in a foreign country. I think a lot of ex-pats will recognize this feeling.

While reading the e-mail I was already preparing myself to defend Japan against whatever arguments he would offer, but I gradually realized that our situations are just too different. I think a lot of the points mentioned by T are in fact very valid. Children would have a very different childhood in the US compared to Japan. I've heard a lot of expats in Japan complain about the education in Japan not being up to modern standards. I've never had children in Japan myself so I can't really comment about the practicalities. If anyone was in such a situation, feel free to reply.

Thinking back to my own childhood, we did have a huge backyard. I did have a lot of freedom when I was young. But I would definitely not say that my education was fun. It did have its highs and its lows, but on average it was pretty boring. I got my first dose of true freedom in Japan, which is why I have a very positive image of it. As a foreigner I did not have to try to fit in because I would always be an outsider. Society did not impose high standards on me the way it did on Japanese people.

So really, the issue T has with Japan is understandable. The US and Japan are two very different cultures, and being raised in either one of them will form you as a person, in a very specific way. I think everyone who has ever spent time as an expat in a foreign country can appreciate the experience of being able to see the world from a different perspective. After seeing that life can indeed be lived in a different way, we each draw our own conclusions about how this will affect us. For some, like T and myself, it means that it's become harder to appreciate the country we were born in. What does it mean to you?

Posted in Japan , Thoughts | Tagged ,

A hot day in Hiroshima

I made it to Hiroshima! But not without problems...

Let's start at the beginning. I woke up at around 6AM, packed up my tent and went on my way. I had a very good rest last night, and it was the first time that I could sleep comfortably in my tent. Last night I really felt at peace at the shrine, and I sat outside for a long time just staring at the scenery while finishing some leftover snacks. I had a good time thinking about a lot of things, and I felt fresh and ready this morning. For the first 2 hours I alternated between watching the scenery and watching the tiny caterpillar which was crawling up and down on my left-front bag. I imagined what it would be like to be a caterpillar on a bicycle, and I cycled on and on and on. 

I don't know about you guys, but I'm getting desensitized from the continuous beautiful landscapes, so today is just this one photo. I'll share some other stuff instead.

"Sports drink"

The other side said "USA daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!". Weird drinks from random vending machines are part of the fun of cycling in Japan.

My lunch

I went to a restaurant called Coco's, which is a family restaurant chain fairly common in these areas. I was very sceptical at first, because I went to another family restaurant called 'Joyfull' yesterday, which was absolutely shit, but Coco's is bloody awesome. The hamburger tasted more like steak than like hamburger. Excellent.

My dashboard

When I took this photo the caterpillar left already. Note how I managed to fiddle my iPod on there. I got tired of it after half an hour and dismounted it again. There's a whole bunch of scratches on the back of the iPod but iDon'tCare.

I'd gotten an early start today because of camping, and I managed to do about 60 km's before lunch. After exiting the restaurant I turned back onto the road and got ready to take my time and enjoy the remaining 25 km's to Hiroshima. The weather was great, the scenery was nice, and I was ready to slow-cycle the entire afternoon away while looking around random places on the way.

It was after entering a long tunnel that I noticed the first sign of trouble. The tunnel was very dark, and I took the pedestrian path instead of the main road. There were a lot of bumps on the way that I could not really anticipate for because of the darkness. In the middle of the tunnel I hit a big bump, and I felt the inside of my rear wheel hit the tire. That's a very bad sign, meaning there's not enough air in the tires. I don't normally hit a lot of bumps along the way, so I hoped sincerely that it was just because of the stupid tunnel and not because of lack of air, but my fears were justified. When I exited the tunnel I noticed my tire was nearly flat.

My first puncture! What to do? Well, I happened to exit the tunnel into a small city, so my first instinct was to find a bicycle shop and get it fixed professionally. I've honestly never fixed a flat tire myself, and although I have the tools, I don't have the confidence and would probably waste a lot of time fixing something that a professional can fix in half the time. I asked at the place where I flatted out, which happened to be a taxi company, if there was any bicycle shop nearby. Alas yes, but they were closed because of the golden week, which is a national holiday week in Japan. They told me I would not find any bicycle shop in business for at least the next two days.

Thinking how much time it would cost me to fix it myself, I decided to see how long it would take to deflate the tire while cycling on it. I got out my tiny foot pump and pumped as hard as I could, and then cycled on like a speeding (well, sweating) bullet towards Hiroshima, which was at this point only 20km away. If I could olnly reach the youth hostel then I could take my time getting my bicycle fixed later.

My stamina outlasted my tire, which was flat again in less than half an hour, still 15km's away from the city. I had no choice but to stop my bicycle at the side of the road and fix it myself. I prepared for the worst and got out my bag of tricks, which contained this little gimmick:

Yes, this magic spray is supposed to fix punctures. Well, it's surely a lot better than getting out the inner tire and replacing it with the spare, so I tried this first. The usage seemed fairly simple:

Right. Put it on the nozzle and push. Even I can do that. I should've spent a little bit more time reading the instructions, because I pushed way too long and the stuff squirted out of the nozzle like shaving cream. Oops. Oh well, better too much than too few, I guess. I proceeded to pump the tire as hard as I could with the crappy foot pump and proceeded on my way.

It works! The magic spray thing works! I still cycled like a speedrabbit all the way to Hiroshima, but the tire didn't go flat any more. After I reached Hiroshima I started searching for my hostel, and I happened to run into a bicycle shop that was not closed on the way. Lucky! I asked the pro to take a look at my tire, and he found no leak. I told him how I fixed it, and he told me it should be ok. Worst case scenario is that the tire starts leaking again after a week or so, in which case I can use the spray again or just replace the tire. I'll ride with it for now as I've decided to take a break here for a couple of days. If the tire is flat again before I leave then I'll replace it. Oh, and my chain is nice and oily again! It's been squeeking like a thousand birds for the past 300km's but now it's ninja-style quiet again. Like a stalker.

The pro does his thing

Soon after the healing I arrived at the youth hostel, which was yet again at the top of a hill with an impossibly steep road leading towards it. I think they do it on purpose. It certainly killed me. Then I had to carry four side bags, two backpacks and a sleeping mat down a long corridor, up two long stairs and down another corridor before reaching my room. Guh. Oh well, the hostel is three times as cheap as the average business hotel so it's absolutely worth it.

I made it! I'm in Hiroshima. I set out again on my now luggage-less bicycle at around sunset to explore the city. Turns out the youth hostel is very very far from the center, and it took me about 20 minutes to get to the famous peace lane (is that the name in English? I don't know). There's a festival called 'flower festival' in the city today, and tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. They could have called it 'hana matsuri' in Japanese, but for some reason it's called flower festival in English. Meh.

First impressions of Hiroshima and the festival: people don't get out of the way for me, policemen are annoying, and the stupid festival completely destroys the peace because there's a lot of young loud drunken annoying Japanese guys walking around acting like idiots. I wanted to see the famous genbaku dome and the peace park, but that's exactly the area where the festival was being held. At first I thought it was only me, because all the Japanese seemed to enjoy themselves, but my two youth hostel bunkmates share my opinion: they came to see the genbaku dome, and they don't care about the stupid festival.

The festival wasn't all bad though: right in the middle of the festival street there was a concert going on, and I immediately recognized the song being played as one of the ending themes of an anime called Full Metal Alchemist. Whenever I hear a song in public that I know is anime theme song, I smile, and I feel happy to be in Japan, where the anime culture is so nicely mixed with regular society.

The festival streets were blocked off for the people to walk, and being a good citizen I stepped off my bicycle and walked all the way to the next crossing and the end of the festival. I was about 20 meters away from the exit when I got on my bicycle and started to cycle again, very slowly, towards the exit. There were no people in my way at all at this point. Then suddenly a policeman with a f*cking megaphone runs up to me and starts shouting "GET OFF YOUR BICYCLE!". WTF?! I politely explained the guy in Japanese that I was leaving the area and that there was nobody I could possibly hit. The response: "GET OFF YOUR BICYCLE!". I politely thanked the policeman for the advice, got off my bicycle, walked 15 meters, then got on my bicycle again and cycled onwards. I also called the guy an asshole after he couldn't hear me anymore. hahaha

I finally reached the genbaku dome and hung around there to take some photos. There were a lot of people gathered around there and a Japanese pop group was singing. Something about 'Yamato world peace' or something that really didn't matter to anyone around as they were only there to enjoy themselves at the festival. Lacking the interest to stay there and listen to more of that crap I went somewhere else and found a nice ramen place to eat, then went back to the youth hostel.

Super-saiyan note: remember when Goku does the weight training and then takes the weights off? I felt like that after leaving my luggage at the youth hostel :D It felt awesome to ride without luggage! I can actually start from a standing stop in a high gear and have some form of acceleration (and no squeaking thanks to the oil)! It felt great. Well, it felt great until I had to climb the damn hill that leads up the youth hostel again. Feeling overconfident without my luggage I started too fast and was completely out of breath at the halfway point. Whoops.

I've yet to find the magic of Hiroshima. Perhaps my timing is a bit bad with the flower festival and all that, but I'm hoping to go around a bit tomorrow and discover the nice places, not the populated places. Well, after I do my laundry, that is. I've got a whole new bag of smelly clothes ready to get washed again..

Good night!

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Some more photos

Riverside sunset near Nara
A street in Himeji
Activity during sunset
A walking path near Himeji castle
A flower in front of the youth hostel
Past expiration date
The view from Kurashima youth hostel
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Found something

No pain no gain
Yesterday I was being very kindly hosted by a friend who worked with me at Asahi Kasei for a year. He and his girlfriend offered me a place to stay for the night in Sasayama, and they immediately made me feel at home. So much at home in fact, that while I was relaxing and playing games with Mathieu I almost forgot about my trip o_0. It was great to have a content-filled  conversation in English for a change, and Mathieu's lifestyle showed a little preview of what could happen if I choose to stay in Japan. Despite, or perhaps because of the homely situation, I chose to cycle on to Himeji today. It's as if I've suddenly been reminded of why I'm doing this trip, and I don't want to lose my momentum.
Leaving Sasayama I continued to follow route 372 and was not disappointed. The beautiful landscape continued on and on for another 20-30 kilometers. The weather was great, the uphills tough, and the downhills rewarding. I put on my favorite music, struggled hard on every uphill and then found what I was looking for on the following downhill. On each uphill pass the scenery changes and the roadsides change to mountain rock or dense forest. The temperature cools down in the small passes, which is great because I'm sweating a lot on the uphills, which were a lot tougher today than yesterday. After completing the uphill there's sometimes a tunnel on top, which is freezing cold to cycle through. Then the mountain road starts to go down rapidly, and the mountain walls disappear, the road becomes wider, and suddenly I'm cycling down a hill with 40kph and the scenery opens up and reveals some rice fields hidden between the mountains, and a small village. There's no traffic, almost no people, the road decline is perfect so I can maintain 30-40 kph all the way through the valley, the perfect speed to enjoy the scenery. And then I reach the end of the valley and the next uphill begins.
That's what I found. The joy of cycling downhill on a wide open road at a nice speed with a beautiful scenery. That's what I was looking for when I started this trip, and that's what I remember from previous trips. It's not just the beautiful scenery, the uphill suffering is as much part of this experience as the downhill thrill. You can't have one without the other, or else it just wouldn't be the same. It's the ultimate reward for a tough physical challenge. On my first cycling trip to Kyushu I experienced this feeling while cycling along the coast of Shimashima island and Nagashima island. On the second trip I found this on route 26 and route 147 on the east coast of Shikoku. Now I can add route 372 wast of Kyoto to that list. It's been a long time since I felt this happy.
Conbini lunch is delicious and saves time
After crossing a bunch of hills the road turned towards the south, and as I got closer to Himeji the road changed into a countryside road similar to the ones in Kanagawa, sometimes passing through towns, sometimes cycling between ricefields, but the feeling of being surrounded by mountains was gone. The wind had picked up too and I was having a medium-hard time trying to keep my speed up. This turned out to be no problem, as I overestimated the distance to Himeji, and I arrived at Himeji with plenty of time to find a hotel and to take some photos of the castle before sunset.
The famous castle
Actually, finding a hotel took me quite long. I found a very cheap hostel (2100 yen for one night) on Google, and had to jump through some strange hoops to find the address. I took a photo of the google map on my compact camera and went off trying to find it, ending up in a residential area that was impossible to navigate. I had to ask directions three times and got sent to three different directions. I finally found the place by myself, but no hotel in sight. Considering how difficult it was to find online I guess it either no longer exists or never existed.
I decided to cycle to the station instead and find a business hotel. Big problem: it's golden week right now and a lot of hotels were either fully booked or they decided to kindly raise the price. One crappy (shitty, actually) hotel told me a one-night stay was 7500 yen. When I asked why it was so expensive they just told me "it's golden week". Running out of options, I got lazy and walked into a YMCA building that happened to show up in front of me, and I asked if they knew any cheap place to stay. Yeah, maybe a weird thing to do, but it paid off :D the YMCA guy showed me the way to a capsule hotel, something typically Japanese that I never had a chance to try. Until now.
Human storage facility
Inside one of the breeding chambers
Capsule hotels are weird. Weird beyond just the idea of sleeping in a tiny cabin and paying money for it. It's a very manly world here in the capsule hotel. I'm on the fifth floor in the common area right now, and on the fourth floor is a public bath. The common area has one huge TV showing manly things like baseball, or you can pay more if you want to see a soft-porn movie. Note that this is the common room and all the guests of the hotel can freely sit here. There is no non-smoking section, so I have to tolerate an annoying smoking guy who is sitting behind me. He can look at my screen, I wonder if he can read English.
Even the lockers are tiny
The sauna/public bath thingie is even weirder. I thought I understood Japanese bathing etiquette pretty well after going to onsen for four years, but this is slightly different. First, you get a locker to put your stuff in, but the locker area is right next to the entrance. If I took off all my clothes there I would have to walk to the bath area naked and anyone entering the sauna could see me. There were no Japanese people around to mimic, so I had to figure out what to do. I first took a look at the bath area while clothes, and saw more naked Japanese people, and a bunch of people in the sauna all wearing the same underwear. Another weird point, because usually the sauna is shared with the public bath, and everyone's usually naked. I went back to the locker area and found a stack of underwear ready to use for anyone. That idea didn't appeal to me, so I kept my own. I was about to undress and walk to the bath area when a young lady worker suddenly walked by. I've been to many onsens in four years of Japan but I've never seen a young lady in the male bath area (although there were sometimes old ladies doing the cleaning). This confused me even more. Finally a Japanese guy came in and I followed him in, finally able to take a bath. This place is very weird to me, and has a different etiquette from Japanese onsen baths.
Going back to the topic of cycling, tomorrow I'm going to head towards Okayama, the next big city on the way to Hiroshima. I'm planning to take a ziggy zaggy route that will hopefully be more fun to take than the big roads. Unfortunately Okayama is about 120km's from here, and while I could do that in a day, I'd be very tired and stressed out to make it in time. I've been looking for hotels or hostels about 80-90 km's from here but couldn't find anything cheap. The good thing is: the weather's been getting better recently! No rain, temperatures rising. I think I can camp tomorrow and the day after tomorrow without any trouble.
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Random Japan-related anecdotes

A stupid conversation today illustrates the many uses of the word 'hai'. This happened at the McDonalds (yes, I go there too much :S).

Cashier: will you be eating here?

Me: hai (yes)

Cashier: hai (I understand). What would you like to order?

Me: I'd like a large coca cola zero please.

Cashier: hai (I understand). that'll be 240 yen.

Me: hai (hands over money)

Cashier: hai (I accept your money)

Cashier: hai (and I return your change)

Me: hai (I accept the change and the receipt)

I hope this illustrates the silliness of Japanese. One word does everything. You can also the phrase 'hai?' meaning "I don't understand what you're saying". It all depends on the tone.

Speaking of silly Japanese, it's been bothering me for a while now, but Japanese are completely lab-rat-trained to stop in front of a railroad crossing. Always, no exception. Even if you can see perfectly that there is not a train in sight within 10 kilometers, a Japanese person will still stop in front of the railroad crossing, look both ways, and then slowly proceed to cross. Now imagine a hundred cars doing that and the kind of traffic jam this  causes. I saw two of those traffic jams today.

Oh, and this story reminds me of another silly Japanese thing: a long while back when I took a trip by train to Hokkaido I booked a hotel in the middle of nowhere and was picked up my the owner by car, who drove me to the hotel. In the middle of nowhere there were traffic lights, signaling red. We had a perfect view of the road to cross and there was not a car in sight as far as the eye could see. The hotel owner waited in his car for at least 5 minutes, then said 'chotto matte kudasai', please wait, jumped out of his car, ran to the sidewalk and pushed the button that pedestrians need to push to cross, then ran back to his car and finally crossed when the light turned green. Japan is probably the only country where this would happen.

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Japan sucks

Whoops, the adventure feeling is completely gone today. If I had to use one word to describe today it would be MEH.

I'm in Nara-ken now. Nara prefecture looks almost exactly like Kanagawa. Today's road was extremely flat with only one slightly hilly section. I cycled 80 kilometers today, but because I started early I was already at my destination at 14:30. Not a lot of cycling and not a lot of hills meant that I still had a lot of energy left. Unfortunately for me the area I arrived at was pretty much like Atsugi: just a typical Japanese city with nothing special anywhere in sight. The weather got cloudy too so I was very much bored and not feeling the adventure at all. Right now I'm at the youth hostel, which turned out to be a typical Japanese house next to a railway line. Every 10 minutes a train goes past and the sound of a bell disturbs the neighborhood. I'll be glad to skip this area and get to Kyoto. This is just too normal.

After being in Japan for a while now, I've observed that there are not many outdoor places that are very accommodating to people. For example, today I walked along a road at the riverside, but the entire side of the road was blocked off with barriers making it impossible to get close to the river. There is no possible place to just sit down and relax! Even if you improvise it's still impossible. If there were no barriers, or if the space between road and riverbed was only 10-20cm's wider, then it would be possible, but no. In the entire country of Japan there will be no such thing. There will be no loitering around at random areas. Japanese people go from home to work and back again, and if they want to loiter around they will go to a dedicated loitering place and spend their time in a concrete park instead, even if they have to go 5 kilometers out of their way to find one. This just plain sucks. In Holland, no matter where you are, there will be benches or grassy areas to sit on. I used to forgive Japan for not having these kind of places because Japan is overcrowded and Japan has no space, but that's simply not true. It has plenty of space to put a couple of benches alongside some roads, it's just simply not the 'Japanese way' to do that. It's for the same reason that there are no trash cans in this entire country: you dump your trash at your building's garbage collection place, or at a convenience store along the way. If neither is possible, Japanese people will carry their trash with them for the whole day. Unless they dump it at the riverside, which is why so many of Japan's natural scenes are spoiled by huge amounts of garbage. You suck, Japan.

I very much dislike these points about Japan. Japan is great if you can accept the Japanese lifestyle and don't try to change it. Things are the way they are, and you'd better accept them, or else you'll only get annoyed. If you can accept them, or if you are never confronted with the bad parts, then Japan is a great country. In every other case I can imagine that people won't like it very much. It reminds me of Apple: there's only one way to do things and it's convenient maybe 90% of the time. The other 10% you're screwed and you wish you were somewhere else. But, like Apple, sometimes there is just not a good enough alternative.

I like Japan because people don't bother me. Every0ne minds their own business and leaves you alone. I like Japan (well, the Tokyo area) because of the convenience. There's train stations everywhere, convenience stores, beautiful sights, anything within 1-2 hours travel. I like Tokyo because it's so huge and there's always something new to discover, and I never have to worry about getting lost because there will always be a train station nearby. I like Yokohama because it's beautiful and peaceful and just gives me a good feeling to walk around in. I like Atsugi because it's both near the countryside and near the big cities, and the area around it is great for cycling and exploring.

Lately I'm not looking forward any more to meeting new people on this trip. Especially the Japanese people's reaction is always the same. First I tell them that I'm from Holland and I work in Japan, then they ask me what's Holland and do they speak English there. Then I laugh and tell them that they speak Dutch, which is a little bit like German. Then they ask about my job and my trip and why my Japanese is so good. After that they run out of things to say and end the conversation with "Ganbatte kudasai": well, do your best. The most interesting conversations I've had on this trip have been with foreigners who have been in similar situations as me, living in Japan for a while and then having to decide whether to stay here forever or go home. I was hoping to meet more of those people at youth hostels, but today there's only one old Japanese guy from Yokohama and he's not very talkative. I have more interesting conversations online than in real life..

Tomorrow I'll reach Kyoto. If I start cycling early I'll have two and a half days there, and I should be out of there just before the golden week madness begins. I'll probably get my bicycle's gears fixed when I get there, although they've been remarkably fine recently. I really wonder if they can be any better than this, because even when I first bought the bicycle the gears were a bit wonky. I've finally gotten used to their current state, so I wonder if fixing them will make things better or worse. Oh well. Kyoto, here I come.

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Some photos

Fuji in the morning
Fuji and Shinkansen
The strawberry road
Uphill climbs are sometimes worth it
Egg vending machine!
Different type of egg vending machine
Children playing while the sun sets
Coast area at Omaezaki
Omaezaki lighthouse
About 10 cats around here. How many in this photo?
Stupid gate thingie near Hamamatsu
Another interesting road..
Spot the sleeping person. He didn't wake up for at least 3 hours.
Nice boat.
Zenbu zigzag ztreet
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Some info on Japanese visas and quitting your job

I went to the immigration office in Yokohama today. Very post-apocalyptic place. Anyway, I thought I'd write here about my findings, because it might be useful for other foreigners who either quit their job or finish their contract and still want to stay in Japan. Keep in mind that everything written down here was told to me: a European guy with an engineer visa who has been employed as a contract worker in Japan for four years. Things will be probably be a little different if you're a Chinese refugee who arrived in a container.

So, my engineer visa is valid until 2012, and I assumed that I could stay in Japan until 2012 and do whatever I want until then. This is absolutely not true. If you are unemployed by your own choice, meaning you did not get fired but you chose to quit your job or your contract finished, then you have three months to find a similar job in Japan. Or else. Or else what? Exactly.

I asked the immigration bureau about the 'or else' part after explaining my situation, and the counterguy told me that if I can't find a job after three months I have to come back to the immigration for '相談' (soudan - consultation, advice). I'm not sure exactly what this means, and the guy wouldn't give me any extra info. However, if I am any good at reading between the lines, I think it means that it's quite possible to talk it over and extend the job-searching period for a couple of months. I asked what would happen if I found a job 5 months after I quit my job (2 months over the allowed time period), and this should probably be okay, provided that the job is in the same sector, meaning in my case that I have to find a job as an engineer. No butler's cafe for me!

After becoming unemployed in Japan it's customary to go to an agency called ハローワーク (Hello Work)、and register yourself there. Once registered, you will receive a percentage of your previous salary for the next three months. To be eligible to receive this money you have to go to the Hello Work office in your city at least once a week (not 100% sure about this as I haven't done this yet), so that they know you're still searching for a job and qualify to receive the money.

So how does this affect me? Well, in my case this is a bit troublesome (困る), as I'm about to embark on a cycling trip and won't be near 'my' Hello Work office for at least 2 months. If I do decide to stay in Japan and find a job (right now the chances of this are about 70%) then I'll have just under a month to find a job, provided I fly back from Kyushu at the end of May. If the trip takes longer or if I cycle back then I might not find a job in time. In that case I have to go back to the immigration office and hope that they'll be kind to me. If this also fails then I'll have to go back to Holland and try again from there. That's the options I have if I want to stay in Japan.

I'm trying not to think about this too much. It would suck if I went back to Tokyo at the end of May, spend three months finding a job, fail, then get deported. That's the worst case scenario, because I would be spending three months doing something very boring without any positive result. "Well, it won't come to that". Cross my fingers.

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