Assorted Writings


Why business hotels are great

Once you get above a certain price range, usually 5000 yen in the countryside, maybe 6-7000 yen in the city, business hotels are all the same. They offer the exact same identical experience. A bed that always looks the same, always in the same position in the room, always with the same headboard controls. A little desk that's filled with pamphlets and a tv, and a very shitty chair, either with or without a backrest. Japan does not want you to relax when you sit down.

But this perfectly predictable experience is exactly what's great about it. You know exactly what you get when you end up at a business hotel. No shared dormitories or bathrooms, no unexpected low quality part of the experience, no forced conversations with the owner or random people. Admittedly, random conversations can also be a high point, but if you're not in the mood for that you can simply opt out by going to a business hotel.

The beds are great. I don't recall ever going to a business hotel where I didn't get a great night's sleep. Contrast that to my experience in the ryokan a few nights ago, where the futon was comfortable but the blanket so narrow that it kept falling off in the middle of the night. The room in that ryokan was freezing, so I had the choice of either accepting that or figuring out how to use an oil heater. Sometimes I just don't want to think about that stuff.

Lastly, these days pretty much every business hotel has free wifi, and since it's Japan, that wifi is fast. I've been to one or two hotels that did offer free wifi but had some technical trouble, but that's a rare occurrence. I just feel at home when I have fast internet and a room that shields me from unwanted social interaction. Hotels that are more expensive actually detract from this experience, because they are less predictable and often require more interaction. And all you get for that is a slightly larger room with perhaps a better view, but even that's not guaranteed. Business hotels are the pinnacle of modern society. Just like conbinis.


If you do weird shit, own it

Sometimes (quite often actually) I arrive at my destination drenched in sweat, with salt stains on my cap and sometimes my clothes, wearing dirty, worn-out cycling gloves and sporting a massive sunburn all over my face. It is with this red-nosed face that I have to calmly walk up the reception of a hotel that's inevitably fancier than I had thought it was when I booked it, and have to go through the check-in procedure ("Hello, I have a reservation. Where can I park my bicycle?") while a bunch of extremely well-dressed hotel guests look on in utter shock.

It's even worse when it's raining, since I'll be dripping all over the hotel floor with my wet clothes, even after trying to dry myself up a bit. The most embarassing encounter I've had during this trip was on the horrible rain day, where I decided to stop cycling early, but since I hadn't prepared for that I had to walk into a random place to ask for nearby hotels. I was completely soaked, inside and out. I walked into what looked like a tourist information place that was in the same building as a train station, and asked if there were any cheap hotels nearby. I had expected the conversation to be very quick, with someone just saying "here, take that road and after a kilometer or so there'll be a few hotels". That would have been perfectly fine. Instead, what happened is that I walked into a local travel agency, and both ladies behind the counter started calling all the nearby hotels to ask if they had availability..

In the meantime I was still being very wet and leaking into a puddle on the floor. It took a really long time for them to finish calling all the hotels but I didn't think it polite to just say thank you and walk away while they were doing it, so I waited for a long, long time, unable to sit anyhwere because I would drench the chairs, unable to lean on the counter because the counter would get wet. Eventually I told them it's fine, please don't bother any more, and they gave me a piece of paper with a map on it, which my wet hands immediately turned into something unusable. I went to get my phone but couldn't unlock it because my wet hands just made the screen wet and unusable, so I had to ask the ladies for tissues to wipe my hands and screen on. Ugh. I was not happy. And since there weren't any hotels nearby I had to cycle 8 more kilometers in the rain, through the hills, in a terrible downpour. But in the end I got to a business hotel, so I was happy. That's what happens when it rains.

Or when it's really hot and I continue aftersweating as I'm checking in and attempt to not look embarassed when the receptionist offers me a towel to wipe my sweat off. I get extremely embarassed when I sweat a lot, but the only way to deal with that is to own it. I tend to pretend it's just not happening, which helps somehow. At least when I'm just coming off a heavy touring bike I've got an excuse for it.

I think I'm a pretty shy person, especially when it comes to interacting with strangers, but after being forced into situations like those I do find myself adapting to it, and becoming less bothered by it. I start out as "I'm so sorry for forcing you to deal with me while I am like this", but then eventually turns into "Yeah, I'm like this, but it's your job to deal with me, so deal with me". Liberating, in a way. I even asked a supermarket worker where the beef jerky was the other day. Take that, society.




I can't think of any other way to say it: the nostalgia has worn off. The memories are still there, but it's been six years now since I lived here, and I've been back many times since as a tourist / cycling tripper / reminiscer. The first few times I came back here it greatly affected me to see the place I had made so many memories in, but nowadays it's starting to feel the same as when I back to the Netherlands to visit my parents: an integral part of my life, sure, but unmistakably something in the not-recent past. The way I feel about this is... meh. I've moved on. Got more important present-day things to think about.


The lighting in Japan is different

"The lighting in Japan is different" is my half-assed explanation for why I somehow end up feeling better about the photos I take in Japan compared to the photos I take anywhere else. I don't really know if it is the actual lighting, or the environmental details, such as the way the roads are built, the kind of materials used, the signs, the ambiance. It might just be me projecting my mood at the time of taking the photo. The feeling of taking photos on a solo cycling trip is very different than that of taking photos on a holiday retreat with the girlfriend. Maybe suffering to get a good shot is what makes me feel this way? It's either that or the lighting in Japan really is different.


Making decisions without hesitation

There's two parts to this. The first is that, when I'm confident, making decisions that I'm already fairly certain about, just happen. There's no worry, no hesitation. I know what I want to do and I just do it. If I'm not confident I'll probably still end up making the same decision, but I'll mull it over for way too long and worry about it way too much. Totally no point in doing that if you end up with the same end result. When I'm not confident I also worry more about completely irrelevant decisions, such as which meal to choose at a restaurant.

The second thing about making decisions is that for some things deciding things way in advance just doesn't work. Either you're lacking the information you need until closer to the decision time (such as with the weather report, and rain), or sometimes you just don't know how you'll feel about it until a lot of other things have happened.

For this latest cycling trip I had sort of planned the first part, but I didn't know for sure which way to go to get back to Tokyo, and whether to linger at certain places or get a move on. Before the trip started I was toying with the thought of spending some time at Lake Biwa and maybe cycling around it. I also though about following the coast line more closely, taking some of the more remote coastal routes in the Kyoto and Kanazawa area. That's something I could have thought a lot about before the trip, and could even have made a decision on that, but I'm sure that once the trip started I would have just changed my decision depending on how I felt at the time. There's no use planning some things, you just need to let them happen naturally.

Another example of this is that I had 'decided' and even looked forward to spending time in the cities of Kanazawa and Matsumoto. But I reached Kanazawa at a horribly busy time, and Matsumoto way too early in the day, so it didn't fit in with the rest of the trip. Since I didn't preplan any of it I felt great about just cycling on and focusing on the trip. In retrospect most of my city stays have not been nearly as fun as staying in random or remote places.


Personal space decreasing

When I'm cycling and take a conbini break I tend to lean my bike against the side of the conbini building. I do have a kickstand for the bike but when it's fully loaded the kickstand tends to not be enough to keep the bike up, especially when I start touching luggage. Inevitably there is an ashtray outside for icky smokers, and my bike often ends up quite close to it.

In the countryside I've noticed several times that, while I'm taking a break, a smoker gets out of his car and lights up, but stays nowhere near me. When he's finished he puts out his cigarette in the ashtray quickly, while keeping as much distance between me and him (it's always a him, not a her). The same goes for school children who roll up to the conbini on their bikes. Whenever they notice me they park as far away from me as possible.

But as I got closer to Tokyo my sphere of private conbini space kept decreasing. In the five lakes area people just don't care any more and stand right next to my bicycle smoking a cigarette. As they do this they still completely ignore me, of course, because talking to strange foreigners on bicycles is not the way of 99.99% of the Japanese people.

If my bike is a bit away from the ashtray but they still stand close to me I make it a point of moving away from them, because I find smoking disgusting. It sucks when you're not in a designated smoking area, got there first, and some stinky people move to stand next to you blowing their smoke towards you. Screw you, smokers. You are ruining nature and the outdoors.



When I cycled down the road that was my first climb during my first solo cycling trip, I couldn't help but think about how ridiculously unprepared I was when I started that trip.

It had been a late start because I decided at the last minute to get my rear tire replaced. It was in utterly terrible condition and I should've done that a lot sooner. Despite that I still reached Miyagase lake at a reasonable time, so I decided to cycle on until later in the day, not knowing the conditions of the road ahead. I wouldn't call that a mistake per se, but it's definitely not something I would do again if I could avoid it.

This was pre-smartphone days, and I don't remember if I even had a map with me at the time. All I knew is that there was a long road that would lead up to the five lakes, and I'd figure out the next step when I got there. I had no real experience with proper mountain passes, other than the road leading up to the lake. In my memories that road was desolate and remote, with not much civilization surrounding it. I likely felt this way because I grew up cycling in the greater Tokyo area, and that kind of warps your mind about how you imagine the rest of Japan looks like. Surprisingly there are areas of Japan where there aren't 20 conbinis within a one-kilometer radius of yourself. That said, when I cycled back down I noticed quite a lot of conbinis, camp sites, houses.. On the first trip, on the first day, it was the most remote road I'd ever cycled. On the third trip, on the last day, it was a cozy, comfortable ride through a suburban area with loads of facilities.

My muscles were weak. I didn't realize this at the time because I hardly ever took mountain roads. I assumed that mountain roads would be about as tough as the ride to Miyagase lake, except longer. I didn't know if I could actually keep up the climb if the road was longer. Or steeper. It was both. I broke down during that second day on the first trip. What I had thought was a straight climb up had turned into an up-down road, and all the progress I'd made climbing up in the last 30 minutes would sometimes be completely wiped out by another downhill. My muscles just stopped working. I couldn't power the bike any more. I tried pushing it up on foot, but that was even more difficult, and strained my arms to death. I remember going at it on the lowest possible gear, standing every few minutes at the roadside to catch my breath, and just sitting at the roadside for many minutes, trying to give my muscles time to recover.

It was probably also a lack of technique. I noticed this in the last few days: when I'm not thinking about it I tend to choose a way too high cadence for a climb instead of relying on my muscles. This makes me run out of breath and doesn't actually strain my muscles much, and after three weeks of cycling they can absolutely take it, so doing a lower cadence makes much more sense. If I forget this bit of information and technique after a few days of break time, surely I would not have known this on the first day of the first trip. That would've made things unnecessarily tough. I did not have my rhythm yet.

I've cycled other difficult roads, but no road has ever pushed my physical limits as much as that road. Even now, at my current strength, it would be a damn difficult climb. But I doubt I will ever experience the same kind of cycling despair I felt during that first trip.It is my own personal most-difficult road.


A wacky way to pass the time

During the middle part of the trip the loneliness got to me for a while, and I found a strange, yet highly entertaining, coping mechanism. I know that 'lonely' is a bit of a presumptuous word to describe my state, given that I was chatting with my girlfriend at least once a day and interacted with at least one human being very day (usually the hotel receptionist), but lack of human interaction did limit that kind of interactive input on my brain.

What my brain decided to do, in the evenings when I had planned to have an early sleep, was to have intriciate conversations in my head between the people I know. At first it kind of just happened at random, but as I started to see the fun in it I was able to put any two random people together and let them have a conversation about any random topic, in their own voices, simulating their personalities as best I could. Although that's not something I did consciously: I would just think to myself "let's have person A talk to person B" and my mind would automatically fill in the personalities of those people. It only works well on the people I know best, of course.

The way the mind works just fascinates me. During the cycling trip I was sometimes in the middle of nowhere, with no internet, no other people to talk to, and nothing really to do until the next morning when I would start cycling again. I'd be physically quite tired as well, so wouldn't feel like doing physical things either.

The mind adapts to everything. A few months ago I wouldn't know what to do in a situation like that. I'd be focused on productivity, working, doing things on the internet, browsing 9gag, checking email, being active. If you suddenly took that away from me my brain wouldn't just accept that. It would still be in the frame of mind of trying to get back to being busy. My mind wouldn't be able to be at rest.

Physical exhaustion goes a long way towards getting to that resting state. After a full day of cycling you'll feel perfectly okay to just stare at the ocean for an hour or two. Your mind won't feel like it will need to do something or get back to something, it will just be completely at rest. At peace. It's a state of mind I have trouble inducing when I'm at home because I have so many distractions readily available to be enjoyed. For a person of low self-discipline like myself the only way to get to that state is to force myself to suffer physically; to exhaust myself until my mind no longer has the energy to think about anything.

I'm perfectly okay with that. It's the best state of mind I've ever had. Well worth suffering for.


Imagination is a powerful thing

During this trip I've passed two places that were used as locations in two popular anime. I've seen both anime, even quite liked both anime, yet when I visited those places I just could not see the connection. I mean, I can see it after the fact, knowing both the source and the final product, but what I cannot see, no matter how hard I try, is how a particular place in real life could end up being such a fantastic location in fiction.

Kami/Kasumi town, the inspiration for the location in the anime Air (TV). I went there and it was grey and cloudy. I saw some of the locations that appeared in the anime and I felt no connection. All I saw was an average grey Japanese town in the middle of nowhere that trucks sometimes passed through, had its one or two cheesy things that are supposed to be its tourist highlight, and above all the main road that connects me to where I came from and where I am going. There was not a hint of anime fantasticness in the town itself, that part all came from the mind of the creator.

Kizaki lake was a bit different. It inspired the setting for Onegai Teacher and Onegai Twins, and I could sort of kind of see that, given that when I went to Kizaki lake it was extremely sunny and holiday-like. It had a bit of a fantastic air to it. But, in my mind, the fantastic air was a property of the real-life place that made it more real-life-fantastic, not anime-fantastic. It was still a real-life place with real-life people living there, with a road connecting A to B, trucks passing by, regular Japanese tourists that are visiting, the usual biker gang parade and a very typical Japanese camp site. There were no alien school teachers or dodgy love triangles going on as far as I could tell, nor would it ever come up in my mind, while seeing the lake, that such things would make a great story to tell for a place like this.

I don't know how anime creators do it. How do they see a place in real life and imagine a world like in anime? I think I lack the imagination required to do something like that, but I have the deepest respect for the people that do. The world must be a wonderful place for people who can do that.


Economies of scale

Not thinking about what you're thinking is bad. Sometimes I'm on the bike and a truck driver cuts me off, and the first thing that comes to my mind is "All truck drivers are bad". Usually I'm able to put that into perspective, but on some days, when it's raining, windy and I'm cold, I lose that ability, and for the rest of the day I'll feel like I'm on some kind of personal vendetta against truck drivers. It's pretty dumb, and I realize that afterwards. Sometimes it's hard to ignore though, especially when a malignant stereotype you've formed in your mind gets confirmed over and over again. The more it gets confirmed, the harder it is to keep an open mind.

So let's talk about Chinese tourists in Japan. If there ever was a stereotype, it's that of the Chinese tourbus pulling up at a tourist site with a stream of Chinese people exiting, loudly talking of course, and generally being in the way of everyone else while they are there, taking photos with their tablets and selfie sticks and generally altering the environment just so they can get the best shot, even if it's bad for the environment.

I've seen exactly that. That is a thing that happens. To name one specific encounter where all the things I mentioned happened at the same time: Yamanakako, two days ago. I was cycling around the lake along the cycling path when I noticed a big tour bus parked at a parking space I was cycling towards. The tourists had already come out and were randomly dispersing to take photos of the lake, but mainly staying on the cycling path and blocking the way.

I didn't have a bell, and ringing my bell is kind of rude anyway, so I just slowed down, made some click-click noises with my wheels and occasionally yelled 'excuse me' to get people to let me pass. The tourists were so focused on themselves that they didn't notice me until the very last minute, and were suddenly so surprised by the sight of a big bicycle coming towards them (at a near-stalling 3 kph...) that they didn't know what to do and nearly fell over themselves trying to get out of the way.

As I was sighing over their ignorance I suddenly heard a loud 'AAH' and saw a couple suddenly run towards their lake, oversized phones out and at the ready. And then I saw what they saw: a lone swan had walked up to the shore and was hanging out there. The woman immediately ran towards it and posed next to it, but before the man could take a photo the swan (naturally) got upset at the invasion of its personal space and started attacking the woman. This amused me greatly. The swan calmed down when the woman went a bit further away and I think they still got their shot in the end.

Now here's the twist: the tourists from the tour bus were not Chinese, they were Dutch!


actually, no they weren't. They were Chinese. It would have been a nice twist, but I distinctly heard Cantonese being spoken by the tourists, so that narrows it down a lot. I found the presence of the Chinese tourists annoying and I thought it detracted from the quality of the area.

I also found the presence of myself annoying and thought it detracted from the quality of the area.

Imagine if, instead of a tour bus full of Chinese tourists, there'd be 80 touring bicycles manned by sweaty hipster Dutch people like me. That would be so goddamn annoying! You've got this beautiful area, with great historical value, and fantastic sights to see, yet it's value is being diluted by the presence of so many people who obviously don't belong here. This is not the fault of any particular nationality, or group of people (other than that they're all tourists), it's just a natural consequence of scale. The Fuji five lakes are a day trip away from the biggest metropolitan area in the world, and a short holiday away from one of the most populous countries in the world; a country whose citizens have been getting richer and richer lately and are able to afford that kind of holiday. It's only natural that the most awesome spots get visited the most, but I think we shouldn't deny that the presence of tourists, regardless of nationality or race, detracts from the experience.

There's no easy solution to this 'problem'. You can limit the amount of tourists that are allowed to be in a particular area, and you probably should at some point, but that's hardly the perfect scenario. Ideally you'd have so much area, so much sights to see, that there's never any one particular area that gets saturated with tourists. This is extremely difficult though because tourists always either go for the close-by, low-hanging fruit, or the most popular, most famous place. Those places will always be at risk of being oversaturated.

Another example: motorcyclists. By themselves they're not too annoying, but in the weekends they tend to go out in large groups riding their needlessly loud motorcycles through the lovely countryside, pretty much ruining the experience for anyone nearby who wants to enjoy the quiet nature. I don't think it's nice to create inconvenience for others by making a lot of noise. This does not scale.

It would be great if, like in online gaming, we could simply set up multiple servers that serve the same location, splitting up the players into different servers. I wonder if VR will ever reach the level of fidelity required to be able to reproduce exactly, in all senses, the sensation of a particular place. You'd also need to simulate the humans in that area so I guess that's a silly argument. If we had that kind of technology then decreasing tourist spot saturation would be the lowest priority thing we'd use it on.

So I guess the only viable solution is indeed to limit the amount of tourists allowed to enter a place. But where do you draw the limit? I've been to some temples in Kyoto where you're hardly able to walk before stepping over another person. I wouldn't call that a great experience, but it's definitely a way to maximize the amount of people able to see it. For the very best places though, I would not mind at all to pay a lot more in order to be able to share the place with less people.

One could claim that paying more to have less people around a popular spot is not fair to poorer people, since they might not be able to go to many such places that are rate-limited. But... this is a capitalist society, and your personal well-being does not depend on visiting a tourist spot, so I wouldn't call it an essential life need. If charging a higher entrance fee means cutting you off from some cultural heritage, then so be it. Go read up on it on wikipedia or something. You'll probably learn more from that than by actually being there. Or better yet: just have high-tariff days and low-tariff days, then you can choose if you want the crowds or not. Either way, it's something humanity is going to have to deal with in the next century, as the ability to travel and visit tourist sights around the world becomes available to an ever increasing portion of the world population.


Spandex cyclists

Before I begin I have to admit to some odd type of prejudice here: all the spandex cyclists I've talked to were extremely nice people. I've blogged before about how some of them encouraged me, helped me and even guided me to a brilliant camp site. That said, my main feeling about spandex cyclists as a group is: I can't seem to get myself to respect them as a group.

I'm not sure why! And I think my now liking them is likely to be a personality flaw in myself, not in them. Still, I should write about it, because why not.

What amazes me about this is how little interaction I actually have with the people I 'do not get along with'. All it takes for a road racer to pass me while I'm going up a hill without saying anything to me and I immediately conclude to myself that I don't like him. It's silly because I don't feel that way towards scooters, cars or trucks. I mean, I often hate on trucks but for a lot more reason: they stink and if they pass me too close, I die.

I don't want to hate on the sporting accomplishments of racing cyclists either: I think it's damn inpressive that they can go so fast and so far on their bikes. I'm not competing with them in any way. Touring cycling is an entirely different thing.

Yet... perhaps it isn't? Perhaps I feel that since we are both enjoying the same roads, the same mountains, the same nature, my way of enjoying it is better than theirs? After all, why be in such a hurry to get through this beautiful scenery? Why spend shitloads of money buying the super-very-best equipment if all it does is accelerate you from 30mph to 32mph? Will it affect your enjoyment that much to be only a little bit faster? What's the point of spending so much money on a hobby if you can enjoy the exact same places for way less?

The beauty of a bicycle, to me, is that it can take you anywhere, away from populated spots into places that others normally can't go. A lot of places are too far to walk to yet difficult to access by car, especially if you haven't planned it in advance. On my bike I get to cycle around an area, spot an interesting road or landmark and just find my way towards it. It's about exploration. Yet I've not seen many (perhaps even any) spandexy cyclists do that. I tend to encounter them on major roads, going from A to B. There doesn't appear to be an element of exploration to them. I could be making all of this shit up. Like I said, I hardly interact with them, so I don't know.

Is it fair to base my opinion on being passed, over the years, by hundreds of spandexy cyclists? Probably not. But lacking any other input, this appears to be my preliminary conclusion. I don't feel drawn towards it. Looking at them I have never felt the desire to buy a racing bike and try one for myself. It appears to just.. not be my thing.

That said, I'm still very happy to interact with someone while I'm on my bike, and I've only ever had good experiences whenever someone talks to me while I'm cycling. Of all the users of the road I very much prefer the spandexy cyclist over anything else. Other than touring bikes, of course ;)


My eternal fight against time

Time bothers me. I've blogged about this before at least several times, but it's still on my mind now. It bothers me that this is my third big solo cycling trip. It bothers me that I will never feel the same way again about a cycling trip in the way that I felt about the first cycling trip. Time passes and I cannot ever get back the exact same feeling I had in the past. No turning back. It just pushes forward. There's absolutely nothing I can do about it, nor any chance of being able to do anything about it in the future. Even if everyone becomes immortal time will still flow in only one direction, and your first X will always be your first X and will never ever come back.

It's the way our brains work. It's not a fundamental law of the universe. Yes, time flows only one way, but its our brains that interpret experiences, and the only reason that first times feel special is that our brains did not contain any prior experience. It seems that the less contents are in your brain, the stronger the new experience feels. It's inevitable that, once your brain's full, things will go numb. That scares me.

I believe there's two fundamental elements about our mind: the memories bit, which is just data storage, and the personality bit, which is our active neural networks that is actually us. Even if we don't remember a particular experience vividly, it has already contributed in shaping our neural network in a particular way. For example, I might not remember a particular time that I was at a beach and someone bought me ice cream, but my neural network will have increased the happiness level for experiences related to 'beach' and 'ice cream'. Your experiences shape you, even if you don't remember them after a while.

That also means that, eventually, as time passes, your real you will have diverged so much from your past you that you experience things completely differently. This might sometimes conflict with your memory storage, because your memory storage might be a very specific memory that tells you that you felt a certain way at a certain place or with a certain person, but your real you, your active neural network, has already changed to feel completely different about that place or person. Memories lie, but your personality is exactly what is you; it's unable to lie. Unless you're lying to yourself and pretending you live inside your memories.

Time only moves forward. You can't ever have two first times. But that's fine. You can have a first second time. And a first third time. And a first fourth.. By time's very definition anything that hasn't happened yet will be completely new. Your mind might be better able to predict what's going to happen, based on all your previous experiences that you used to train your neural network with, but in the end the next thing will always be completely new, and you'll never know with completely certainty what's going to happen next.

That is an extremely exciting thought.

Posted in Spirit of Japan 3 , Thoughts