Spirit of Japan
In 2007 I did my first ever bike trip. My friend and I had just bought brand new discount touring bicycles and we were eager to try them out in Kyushu. It being our very first cycling trip ever, we had no idea what to expect. In retrospect, nothing we could possibly have expected would have been as amazing as the actual trip. That's when I knew I was hooked to fully loaded touring.
The years after that I've done some smaller trips, but never anything that had the same impact on me as that very first trip. Until 2010, the year I left Japan. I was determined to go out with a bang, and, not knowing whether to stay in Japan or not, I decided to just go cycling instead and see what I would come up with along the way. It was the first tour I ever did by myself, and it was as novel an experience as that first trip back in 2007. Since then I've done several smaller trips: the Netherlands, Spain, Sicily, and bits of the UK. Most of those were not fully loaded as I wasn't carrying a tent with me, or was carrying it but did not use it.
I have a constant feeling in the back of my mind that I did not quite 'finish' Japan. There's many ways in which you could consider a cycle tour of Japan 'complete'. The most common definition seems to be that of the "一周" (issyuu,): one lap. Traversing the entire coastline of Japan, or as much as is allowable by roads.
I'm not going to do a lap around Japan, but I have decided on something else: this year, I will finish cycling Japan from North to South! I've done Tokyo all the way down to Kyushu, this time I will do Tokyo all the way up to Wakkanai. Fully loaded. I've planned the first few days of the trip but I will let randomness guide me for the bulk of the trip. I'm not planning to know how to get back to Tokyo until I reach Wakkanai. I have my girlfriend to thank for this idea: I was planning to do a two-week trip myself, pre-booking hotels and staying around the Tokyo area. But she convinced me to bring my tent and do some camping, and that made me realize how long it's been since I've done a proper adventure cycle.
One month until the trip. I have a lot to do.
I don't know why but I suddenly remember, completely out of the blue, very vividly, an encounter I had while cycling Japan last year. I was cycling in the central part of Japan, somewhere in Mie prefecture. I arrived at my planned destination early-afternoon and had already found my hostel: a very nice old Japanese house on top of a hill (they're always on top of hills..). I had my choice of this wonderfully quaint Japanese youth hostel or an expensive touristy business hotel, so obviously I took the hostel. It was a weekday and out of tourist season so there was only one other guest: an Italian woman. I got talking to her and she was a fair bit older than me. She'd lived in Japan for a couple years longer than me and was very used to the country. If I remember correctly she was planning to return to her home country and was doing one last trip across Japan, a bit like me.
Since the town was in the middle of nowhere and there was absolutely nothing else to do, we visited the only nearby tourist site together: two rocks in the sea tied together by a thick rope. There is deep meaning to this but I can't be bothered to write it down here as it is completely irrelevant to the story. After we finished sightseeing we went to one out of exactly two restaurants that were still open and had a very good seafood dinner. As we were eating our meal two (male) foreigners entered the restaurant. You could instantly tell that they were tourists and had not been in Japan for very long. They took the table next to us and started talking to us. It soon became clear that neither could they read the menu nor could they speak to the waiter, which was a bit problematic as in these rural places a lot of people don't speak English. Including the waiter.
We translated some things for them and helped them order drinks. They turned out to be tourists from Israel, staying at the expensive business hotel. They were dressed for action, ready to get drunk and get laid. I guess they must have been really disappointed that the town they were in was so sleepy. That left them only one course of action though, which was to chat up the Italian lady I was having dinner with. Forgive my national stereotyping, but when you think Italian lady, you think party. Too bad for them that this Italian lady had become rather Japanese-ified and was at that moment not very interested in drinking or partying. They kept inviting her (and me, since I was having dinner with her) to drink, go out to their hotel's bar, party etc. She kept politely refusing, saying that she wasn't interested. When we finally finished our meal the Isreali's got more and more desperate, and as we got up to leave they tried to persuade her one last time. She'd had enough though, snapped at them, and then we left. Without the two guys following, fortunately.
Normally I'd perhaps be mildly amused at such an encounter, but at the time I couldn't help but feel that this really showed the difference between foreigners who are living in Japan and foreigners who are visiting Japan. The former are respectful people who are nice to talk to whereas the latter are just obnoxious. This is of course an overgeneralization, and one that I will be on the wrong side of if I ever return to Japan as a tourist. It's interesting to observe nonetheless.
In preparation for the upcoming cycling trip to Sicily (did I mention that already? I guess I should blog about that) I cycled to the bicycle shop two days ago to get my bicycle looked at. Every time I go to a bicycle shop I go there for the same reasons: worn-out brake pads and clunky gears. I also told them to look at some minor annoyances that have been bothering me ever since I first had it. I expected a semi-decent quick-fix, but what I got was a complete overhaul. I'm quite happy with the result.
The price surprised me: 210 euro's! WTF? I was expecting it to be a lot cheaper, but looking at what they did to my bike (and the hourly labor cost ><;) it makes sense. When I picked up the bike today the repairman told me that before I took it, he needed to warn me. Apparently, if I kept going with my current front wheel there was a fairly large chance that it would break in two while braking. Since a new wheel is not cheap they wanted to ask me first, and I figured why not get it all over with in one go. The front wheel has been wobbly ever since before the big Japan trip. Now it's all new, all good. I can start working on messing it up again ^^.
That said, I can't help but think about future trips! I want to go to New Zealand. I want to finish a whole circumference of Japan, as I didn't even do half of it last year. It feels unfinished. I'm also longing for adventure. For the next big trip I want to be travelling a lot longer than the 2 months I did last year. It's something that I can't delay for too long, or else I"ll be old, gray and dead. And that's bad.
2012 it is then!
The CSS is not cooperating well here. I'd rather have a dynamic height, but I need to spend some time on that to get it to work.
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These are the photos of the coldest day of the cycling trip I did last year. The location is the west side of Mount Fuji. It was one snowy, icy trip all the way down to sea level from ~1000 meters up. A day I will probably never forget :)
Five months ago I was here. I threw away most of my worldly possessions, sent my remaining stuff home to my parents and cycled 2000 kilometers from Tokyo until the southernmost tip of Japan, carrying with me nothing but the bare necessities. Four side bags of survival items and a backpack of electronics. No time limit, no pre-set course to take. I have never before in my life felt so free, and I'm not sure if I will ever feel that free again. I really miss that time right now.
Of course I realize that most of that freedom is just an illusion. For one thing, it's pretty much impossible to get away from civilization in Japan. A second limitation was money and my visa status, which limited the duration of my trip, although I finished it long before either one became endangered.
Leaving everything behind and going on a bare-necessities trip with no time limit. I'm not sure if I will ever be in a similar opportunity again, but to those of you who will: don't hesitate! It will be the best experience of your life!
After taking the ferry to Kii, I cycled along a big road when I suddenly spotted a youth hostel sign. I followed it onto this road and eventually had to climb a huge hill to finally reach the hostel.
I really miss the mountains. (but not the JUSCO)
This was quite a tough climb, but not too tough. It was also one of the most beautiful roads I've found.
Also taken at the aforementioned road.
Doing laundry at a business hotel. I had to leave again the next morning. My laundry was not dry.
Spotting a vending machine after a long period of cycling is like approaching the finish line after finishing a hillclimb.
Awkward raindrops on a poster of a politician. >_<;
Still more to come!
I'm back in Holland now for about two weeks, and I've been sorting the photos of my trip. While reviewing the photos I took I found that there's really still a lot that I want to share on this blog, so I've decided to recap my trip here and share some new photos with you. Here's part one, which covers the trip from Atsugi, Kanagawa until the first ferry I took, south of Nagoya.
Looking back on the first part of the trip really makes me feel as if it hadn't really started yet. All the way until Nagoya, and even most parts of the Kii peninsula, it just felt like a short trip, and I didn't quite have the right mindset yet. The weather was cold, very cold. I camped the first night, and then climbed higher and higher while temperatures got lower and lower. It was common sense not to camp near the Fuji five lakes area, where snow fell and sakura blossomed, even though in Tokyo the sakura season was already ending.
I reached my limits very quickly on the second day of cycling. My bicycle was too heavy, my pre-trip training had been insufficient and I was very much overweight. Not ideal conditions to climb 800 meters on a windy road in the mountains. I really, truly reached my limits that day, and I had to pause for about an hour under a tree at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, unable to motivate myself to go on. Other cyclists passed me while I was waiting, and finally I gathered the strength to go on. No walking, cycling in the lowest gear. I was tired beyond belief, and every time I heard a car approaching I prayed that it would be a small truck so I could try to ask the driver to take me to the top, because I really doubted my own strength. Eventually I reached another resting point in front of a tunnel, and some other cyclists were there waiting. I asked them if it was much farther to the highest point, as I didn't know where I was. They told me I was already there. It was over. My trip to Mount Fuji: the worst part is complete!
Things got worse from there. I took a break the next day because it was raining: I left my luggage at the youth hostel I was staying at and cycled around lake Kawaguchi without my luggage, in the rain. I felt bored and anxious to go on, so I set my mind on departing the next day. The next day it snowed.
I wasn't prepared at all for this kind of weather. I expected it to be sunny and 20C, maybe a bit cold at night but not too bad. It was bad. Temperatures were near the freezing point and a nasty cold wind made me feel terrible as I cycled down 1000 meters back to sea level while it was snowing. I'll never forget the moment that I woke up at the youth hostel and first walked outside to find my bicycle covered in snow.
(B, if you're reading this, this is the same road we walked on in the middle of the night, two summers ago)
From there on things got a bit easier. The weather cleared up, the roads got flatter and I made excellent progress on the seaside road to Nagoya. This was the first time that I felt comfortable enough to try out some roads at random while following my compass, and I kept on traveling like that ever since. It was also the time that I faced my first misconception: in my mind I had thought that cycling to Nagoya would take about a day. It took three days. And the weather was still colder than I expected.
Making good speed on the ocean roads I quite enjoyed the scenery on day 5. Day 6 was dreadfully cold and gray and I'd rather forget all about it. Day 7 smelled very nice. Here's a video I took on day 5.
I ventured onto a side road looking for a place to buy some food, which I found at a conbini. Then I decided to follow the side road to search for a camp site. Eventually the road changed from asphalt to rocks, and then sand, and it became impossible to continue cycling. I walked about a kilometer in the sand with my bike until I found a suitable camp site. Fortunately for me there I found a proper road nearby the next day and didn't suffer much. Here's a video I took while waiting for the sun to set.
I cycled on and on along the seaside until I ran out of land, and then I took the ferry to the Kii peninsula. That's all the photos I've sorted so far, so more later!
Holland won from Denmark! I watched the match in a sports bar in Atsugi with some friends. After that we also watched Japan vs Cameroon, which was incredible. Quite a good atmosphere. When the match finished it was about 1AM, and I went to fetch my bicycle and went to the bus stop. It took me a bit more than half an hour to take apart my bicycle and put it inside the bag. I managed to fit everything inside including 3 out of 4 sidebags. The bus would arrive at 5:10AM so I sat down next to my luggage and took a rest.
I woke up at around 4AM when an old man from the bus company arrived to prepare for the arrival. He wished me a pleasant morning, and then told me to go home because I could not bring my bicycle bag into the bus. New regulations, apparently. Rather than choosing to deal with this setback rationally, I decided to fall asleep again. 30 minutes later I woke up again, and the guy told me that there might be a small chance that I could ride the bus after all. Another 10 minutes later a second guy arrived and told me it's no problem as there's plenty of luggage space. The first guy tried to convince the second guy to make me pay for a second seat because my luggage was normally not allowed on the bus, but the second guy told him to shut up and stop being an asshole (well, in my mind this is what happened. In reality the second guy was a bit more polite)
And on we go! On the bus, then waiting at the airport, checking in my luggage and paying for overweightness, then an 11-hour flight and suddenly I'm back in Flatland. I mean, Holland. I miss mountains already. I took a taxi from the airport to my friend's place in Amsterdam. All this time the reality that I was back in the country where I was born, without a way back to Japan, did not quite sink in.
The next day I woke up, my friend went to work, and I put my bicycle back together.
Amazingly, not a single part broke during the flight. I managed to put my bicycle back together in pretty much the state it was when I left Japan. Even better, because I waited until Holland to mount the new bicycle stand you can see under the rear sidebag.
When I was back in Japan I seriously considered the idea of cycling back home, but once back in Holland the idea just seems absurd. This is not a country of adventure, or at least it isn't to me. I just want to get home, so I took the train. Fortunately Amsterdam is not so big, and I was able to zigzag my way towards the central station without too much trouble. Cycling in Holland was a big adjustment for me, as I had to cycle on the right side of the road instead of the left side. Amsterdam's bicycle culture was interesting too: my bicycle usually stands out a lot, but in Amsterdam my bike was one of the least extravagant ones. It was also comforting to be able to park anywhere without having to worry about the police taking away your bicycle, like they do in city areas in Japan.
Sitting in the train the reality of it all finally set in. I had cycled over 3000km's from Tokyo to Kyushu, over mountains, in the rain, in the snow even. It was an incredible trip, and I finally felt the feeling of victory. I'm coming home again, after four years of Japan. Although I am unable to go back to Japan, the country I learned to love so much, for now, but I feel confident that I will return there sooner or later. In fact, the idea of returning there might prove an excellent motivation for me. Right now I'm back in Holland, and I'm a different person than I was four years ago. I'm very happy about that.
Getting off at the final destination, Groningen, I had about 15 kilometers left until I would really reach the last destination on my trip. It was a good ride. There were no hills. Of course.
I took a break at the lake near my home, the Zuidlaardermeer. I organized my things and prepared to surprise my parents at their home. They expected me to come home near the end of June, and they probably expect me to give them a call when I arrive at the airport. I don't think they expected me to just show up on my bicycle.
The sky is incredibly blue here. I have never seen this particular color of blue in Japan. It's intense.
I arrived home, parked my bicycle in front of the house, looked around, and didn't see anybody. I walked around the back, completely didn't see my mother sitting in a corner of the backyard, working in the garden. When I turned around and walked back I finally noticed her, and I very much enjoyed the surprised look on her face as she realized I was back home ^_^.
My father would come home from work later, and I parked my bicycle at the front of the house so he would notice it when he arrived. Again, things didn't go quite exactly as planned.. He arrived, parked his car, and came in from the back entrance! He never noticed me until he saw me sitting on the couch. Oh well, a minor failure, but the surprise in general was a great success! I'm back home now. The trip is over.
So what happens next? Good question. I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do with my life, but it's not something that I can just write down here in a couple of lines. The bottom line is, I have a goal, or a direction, that I want to work towards, but I haven't really chosen how I will do that. I'm planning to spend the next weeks deciding my course, which will affect what my life will look like after I leave this safe place again. Besides that, I have plenty of things related to Japan still left to take care of, so I definitely won't be bored.
And what will happen to this blog? Ever since I went to Japan five years ago I've been blogging - about daily life, Japan, cycling, photography, technology and my thoughts. This probably won't change. The topics might be a little different from now on, but the core theme is always the same: whatever is happening in my life, I will write it down here. A life blog. This post is published live again, no time lag. I'm up to date, and will continue to rant about my life. :D
Until next time!
I have a little secret to admit: I've been deceiving you all for the past few days. In truth, the blogposts I have been making for the past few days have been scheduled in advance to cover up for my surprise return to Holland! :D
Now this might be a little bit messy: at the moment that I am typing this blogpost it's 06/15, 8AM. I'm at Narita airport, waiting to check in my overweight bicycle. I have no idea if my oversized luggage will cause trouble or if everything will go smoothly, but by the time this is published (06/17 21:00) I should be back in Holland. I'm planning to surprise my parents my suddenly showing up in front of their doorstep with my bicycle, two weeks earlier than they expect me. On the 18th I will report on the results of the surprise. From then on things'll be back to normal, and I will be back in Holland, never again to return to the lifestyle I experienced in Japan for the past 4 years... T_T
Note: I did a poor job of covering up my tracks, and if you had checked my tweets, the weather report in Japan or the EXIF data on the photos I posted then you probably would have found something odd ;)
Update, two hours later: I managed to stuff all of my luggage except my backpack and one sidebag into the bicycle bag, which weighed between 26 and 30 kg o_0. They made me take the air out of the tires and had me pay 9300 yen because of the overweightness. Ouch, but acceptable. Ironically, if I had gone to Holland two months ago without the bicycle, the total weight would have been more. I've lost over 10kg. IMO if you're going to charge for weight, you might as well charge for body weight as well. Yes, I say that knowing that I would not benefit from such a deal. But it's just more logical than having to pay for overweight luggage. At least they can weigh the passengers and then decide on a price-per-kilogram for the overweight luggage afterwards, based on the total weight of the passengers. That way would make much more sense to me...
Bye bye Japan. I will miss you a lot.