(Bit of a long post this time. I stuck yesterday and today in one post, and also added random thoughts.)
Today was one of the worst types of days you can have in a cycling trip. It wasn't outright raining, so I felt like I should cycle, also not in the least because I've already taken one rain day this week. But the entire day it was grey, dark and looming with the threat of impending rain. I managed to check the weather radar a few times while on conbini breaks and it was constantly just behind me. It was only mild, but still, I felt like I was cycling to get away from the rain. But I should talk about yesterday first.
Yesterday I was too tired to blog. I had arrived in Hamada after 97 km of cycling just one mountainous road. Coastal, yes, but in this bit of Japan the mountains go right to the coast, and the road is somewhere inbetween and always going up and down. When I arrived I felt proud of my accomplishment and went out for a walk after finding a hotel. When I got back to the hotel the tiredness hit and I slept for just over 10 hours, quite unintentionally. Hamada is one of those dead towns of Japan. They all have a train station, but despite that there isn't really any activity. The main shopping street was filled with closed or abandoned little shops. And like some Japanese towns they feel the need to play background music. Probably to make it seem less empty. For some reason Hamada chose to fill the silence with gangsta rap.
I did bung it up a little when it came to searching a hotel. I basically walked into the first hotel I saw, got quoted a fairly expensive price and mentioned I was kind of looking for something cheaper. The owner offered me a cheaper rate of 6600 yen, so I thought 'why not' and committed. When I looked out my room window, directly opposite of me was another business hotel with a giant sign right in front me: 'rooms 4800 yen'. Beh. Lesson remembered: always shop around before committing.
The cycling wasn't easy. I was following route 9 for most of the day. There weren't many detours possible since there was just a lot of mountainous terrain, with not much of interest along the way. The best thing about not being completely unfit is that I'm able to feel the rhythm of the road again. It's that feeling of slowly creeping up the hill, passing the top and then cycling into a little valley between the mountains, with a little farming town wedged between the mountains, the road and the ocean. And then the road takes you up again into the next mountain and to the next valley. The global rhythm of mountains and valleys is great, but it's also the little rhythm of the road narrowing and widening, of crossing bridges and tunnels, of passing construction workers, of taking a wide corner while a car is passing you, of cycling uphill next to a sidewalk and getting surprised looks from sidewalk cyclists when you're passing them. It all contributes to the general feeling of the road, and it's usually the thing that comes first to my mind when somebody asks me about somewhere.
Once you're in this rhythm the roads and the traffic just automatically make sense. You know automatically which side roads you should take because they'll be quiet shortcuts, and which side roads not to take because they'll go somewhere else. You know where your position of the road is and how other traffic will react to you. In the first day or two I was still a little anxious about partaking in traffic but that feeling is completely gone now. I simply am on the road, just like others are, and I know how they will react to me. I don't feel bad about where I cycle or worried that people will hit me. I make sure I make the right moves so that cars and trucks will see me, and I will get out of the way if I think there is a chance they haven't seen me or might get too close. It all happens automatically, it's just part of the rhythm of the road.
Japan is an amazing country to cycle in for many reasons, one of which is its excellent infrastructure and facilities. Roads, even secondary, narrow, mountainous roads, are of amazing quality. Main roads will have loads of conbinis, restaurants, supermarkets, malls and anything else you can think of. You're hardly able to go more than 50 kilometers on a main road in Japan without being able to buy anything you could possibly need.
It's not quite the 'adventurer' or 'explorer' vibe if you're cycling in a country like Japan - I'm aware of that - since you're never really more than 10 kilometers away from civilization, but that also is not the point of why I'm doing this trip. I'm not quite sure any more what the point of this trip was. I don't think it's had a point. Until now.
The point of this trip is to witness modern day Japan. To see how cities are shaped, to see how they connect, to see how the people travel. I find infrastructure fascinating, and traveling on the roads from city to city really makes me realize how fragile our infrastructure really is. Sometimes all it takes is one road failure to cut off an entire section of the population from the rest of the country. The people of Kyushu are experiencing this right now, sadly.
There are certain things that don't really fit into the 'theme' of the trip, as defined above, and also things I specifically dislike. Temples and shrines, I love to see those. There's just so many of them throughout Japan, and all of them have their own interesting history and are still visited by the local people today. I like less the temples and shrines that have become so famous that they're now a tourist attraction. But I'm a sucker for a good photo, so I'll visit those if they're near my route.
In terms of things I specifically dislike, I saw one thing today that I only recently realized I dislike, maybe even hate. It's nothing practical, like tunnels or trucks. No, the thing I hate is artisan patisseries in the middle of fucking nowhere. They're only put there because it's a road that leads to some shitty tourist attraction for the posh Tokyo-ites to visit because they can't be without their shitty fancy bread for so long. So you're on this road somewhere, usually mountainous or industrious with little else around it, and suddenly this building pops up that's completely out of context and does not fit in at all. 99 percent of the time it will have a badly spelled French name and a nice cafe attached to it. Indoors, of course, because you wouldn't want to sit outside in the real world. Fuck those places. Seriously.
Back to the topic of roads and infrastructure: secondary roads are fantastic because they're completely empty. It's also why they suck. For example: today I veered away from national route 9 for about 10km to take a smaller road that was a bit closer to the coast, and also went past many smaller train stations and local village centers. The road was wide, straight and completely empty. Hardly any cars passed me at all, because they were all on the big boring national road. The cycling was a lot better on the secondary road, but there really is nothing in ways of facilities. No conbinis, no restaurants, just the odd grocery store, undoubtedly run by an old couple, next to a train station that's not much more than a shack.
Today was the first time I encountered a road I could not take. I was still on a secondary road off route 9, but suddenly the rest of the road was blocked with a barrier. Looking at the map I couldn't imagine anything dangerous to me that would make it uncyclable, since the next town was less than a kilometer away at the other side of the road. So I took a peek inside the blocked-off area. It turned out that a whole section of road had completely collapsed with no easy way for me to get my bike to the other side, so I went around instead.
The past two days have been pretty tough. Route 191 and route 9 are not easy roads for cyclists. They keep going up and down, they're full of trucks and tunnels and places where the roads narrows enough for traffic to be an annoyance. It's mentally and physically draining. I usually start out dapper in the morning, put some happy music on and enjoy pushing myself a bit for the first 30 kilometers or so. The second 30 kilometers are tough, but doable. After that I'm just wet from sweat and not thinking, only pushing my bike up the next hill, no longer caring about traffic or anything else, just focusing on the cracks and patterns of the road.
Most of all, I remember why I need to defend my position on the road. I always forget this and try to sometimes take the sidewalk bit, but it always (!*@&%£^%& always) either narrows, gets very bumpy or simply ends without any way to get back on the main road. It is always, always a mistake to not cycle on the main road in Japan. There is only one exception: tunnels. If there is a secondary tunnel, or a wide bit of sidewalk in the main tunnel, then you should take that, but immediately get back on the main road after the tunnel.
Trucks don't like me sometimes, I imagine. It will look like I'm cycling way too much towards the center of the road. But the thing is: it's their fault. The weight of the trucks has warped the road so much that it's become impossible to cycle nicely on the side. Sometimes there's a nice bit of space between the sidewalk and the white line on the left, and I try to cycle in that general area when the road is wide, so that trucks can pass me, but sometimes that area becomes narrower and disappears, and then I have to venture to the right side of the white line. But the trucks have pushed down the asphalt so much that it's created a ridge to the left of where their tire hits the asphalt, pushing it up. That's a peaky little hill that's impossible to cycle on because you'll fall off. It also reduces the cycleable space to the left of the white line even further, so I end up with only one decent place to go: exactly where the truck's left tire normally goes. And that means the trucks have to go around me. I am perfectly OK with this.
Random thing: I saw a garden shop that was called 'Be Bird'. I somehow kept thinking this to myself today whenever I felt moody. "Come on, dude, Be Bird!" I don't know exactly what that means, but I will try to keep it in mind.
There's so much I'd forgotten about cycling trips that have all come back to me now. It took me a few days to get used to it, but now I'm in exactly the same mindset as I used to be during past trips. It's that groove, that rhythm of the road, that's just impossible to not get into. On days like today and yesterday, with not many side roads and no real need to constantly look at my map for navigation, I just get into a real good rhythm, no matter what the weather is like, and just keep going and going and going.
The booking.com app isn't as brilliant as I previously said it was. Or rather, relying only on booking.com is a strategy that's not very useful if you're in a rural like the one I am in now. A lot of hotels are not on booking.com, and as I'm writing this I'm sitting in a hotel that was reported as full on booking.com, yet still had space for me when I showed up at the door. As I was parking my bike in the parking lot I could feel the first raindrops. Today has had a very successful ending, given what options I had.
Since booking.com didn't have anything available I figured that going to the city center would not be a good idea, since it's Saturday today and all hotels were booked full. Instead, I found a camp site about 15km before the city as my first option. It was less of a cycle and cheap, but also in a bad position for the next day since I'd have to cycle a lot more to get to my next destination, which is also a case of "there's really nothing in-between, so I have to go at least this far". A distinct lack of options.
I arrived at the camp site quite exhausted and dead, but I knew the road would get easier from there, since it would lead into the city and there'd be less mountains. So I called up a guest house and reserved a bed in their dorm room just in case, and then cycled into town. I was completely dead by then, with no energy left, and still completely drenched in sweat and sweaty clothes from all the climbs. When I reached the city I took a quick break to change my shirt, and it completely changed me. I somehow had forgotten how nice it feels to be all warm and dry again. Since it was still a bit early to go to the guest house I figured I'd hit up some of the hotels to see if they had a spare room. Lucky me, the second hotel I tried was both cheap and right next to a Sukiya. I'd only eaten one onigiri and one piece of bread today in my race to stay ahead of the rain, so I was very happy with that.
So I'm happy now. I had, by all standards, a shitty day. The weather was grey and terrible and uninteresting. The road was boring and difficult. But in the end, I managed to level up my overnight options two times and I had a great lunch/dinner. Maybe that's also part of the point of this trip. It's not about feeling happy all the time. Sometimes you really do need to suffer to appreciate the good things in life. Even water tastes like the best drink in the world if you're really thirsty. I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to choose my own hardships.
90 kilometers per day is probably a bit too much. I can physically do it, but it doesn't leave much leeway for exploration or picture-taking. It's not a problem on a day like today, with grey weather and not many side roads, but on a nice day in a nice area I want to do less kilometerage and enjoy the area more. Tomorrow might be a day like that. There's some interesting places to see :)
Final note: I can't believe how seriously I take things somehow. Life is better if you don't take things too seriously. I've written myself a note "Take things less seriously!!!"