A trip from Tokyo to Hanoi

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My journey through Japan has started. After a couple of days of cycling, a two week workcamp and cycling again, I have now arrived in Urawa City (just north of Tokyo), visiting Markus, Eiko and their newly-born son Nils. From Tokyo, the journey goes south to Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa.

japan.jpg - 32 kB The first week
On the 9th of august 2000 I travel with Singapore Airlines from Brussels to Singapore. Erwin Filmer, a friend from University meets me there. That night I fly to Narita Airport in Japan, where my adventure starts on the morning of the 11th of August. Being Dutch and arriving with a huge box makes me very interesting for customs, but with every picture of illegal substances, I have to give them an honest no. Fortunately, my bike is in better shape than the box it was in and I manage to get it ready for riding again. After a couple of meters of cycling, my head is dripping like a waterfall from the heat and the humidity. This has not improved since.

Japan turns out to be a very modern country, with good roads, but also with lots of traffic. Even more than in the Netherlands, every piece of lands seems to be used for either a house, a rice paddy or a road. I cycle either on the road itself, or on vague pieces of road meant for cyclists and pedestrians. Good for balance and control exercises, but very tiring. My goal for the day is a youth hostel in Tsuchiura. It turns out to be closed. Searching for a hotel then turns out to be a real challenge, because I have no way of reading the enormous amount of roadsigns and comparing each of them with the funny looking characters in my phrasebook that supposedly say hotel in Japanese. Asking for a cheap (not good) hotel, leads me to a so called love-hotel, where Japanese couples rent rooms by the hour to do whatever things they do for which they do not have the privacy anywhere else. The search continues and after a couple of hotels with no rooms available, I end up in a business-hotel. The room is an empty tatami room, where I have to make up my own bed with stuff that is lying in a closet. The next challenge is the Japanese bathing ritual, that I had read about. You first clean yourself completely, while sitting on a small stool, using soap, shampoo, buckets of water and a shower. This feels great after a day of cycling through 30+ degrees. After you are completely clean, you go into the actual warm bath, which is used by everybody. When walking through the hotel, I am constantly aware of what slippers to wear. Outside: regular shoes, inside: slippers, toilet: special toilet slippers, tatami room: no slippers. Of course all of the slippers are too small for my western feet.

In the next two days I cycle to Nikko, via Utsonomiya. Nikko is the first day with rain, just when I am visiting the temple complex there. After Nikko, the mountains start. With an average speed of 8 km/h I climb towards the top. There is usually a tunnel. This is not the nicest of experiences, as they are quite dark and the sounds of passing cars and trucks is magnified a thousand times. The descent is a great experience and I am beginning to understand why people like riding a motorcycle so much. It must be like going downhill all the time. When asking for accommodation this time, my bike is loaded onto a small truck and I am driven to a nearby guesthouse. Japanese Mountains

On the 15th of August, I end up in Yuzawa, right in the middle of their annual festival. Small shrines are carried through the town to welcome the spirits and show them around. Together with the first foreigner I have seen since leaving the airport, I am pulled in to help carry the shrine. This is fun, but soon my shoulder starts to hurt, as I am much taller than most of the Japanese and more of the weight rests on me.

Voluntary work
The next day it is only a short ride to Shiozawa, where my two week workcamp starts. When travelling for so long, there should also be time for some 'useful' activities. As an introduction to Japan, I decided to take part in an exchange program for volunteers through Stichting Internationale Vrijwilligersprojecten (SIW) and NICE. Together with one Brit, a German, an American and eight Japanese people, I organize a two day tour through the nature for a group of 25 Japanese people. Later we climb mount Makihata (2000m), to restore footpaths and parts of nature that have been eroded. These are a great two weeks, with an excellent group of people and beautiful nature. Ready to set off after the workcamp

After the camp ends on the 30th of August, I make my way south. The closer I get to Tokyo and the further away from the mountains, the busier traffic gets and the more dense the area is populated. What is marked on my map as Japanese Countryside, turns out to be full of houses. I guess the countryside is defined as having ricepaddies between houses, even if the ricepaddy is more the size of a garden. On the way, I have meet several Japanese people, but conversations a usually short, because of my little to no Japanese language skills and very few English with the Japanese. In Chichibu, I accidentally run into a Dutch person (no escape possible), and we have a nice time over a coffee.

Japanese countryside

On the 1st of September I arrive in Urawa City. It is great to see some familiar faces and catch up on things with Markus Spann and Eiko Isoyama. Markus and I both worked in Sweden for American Management Systems, a very international and cool company to work for. The 2nd of September is a regular Saturday, sleeping in and doing laundry. On Sunday, Markus and I go to Shinjuku, with tall buildings, a lot of shops and even more people. Very interesting, but very tiring as well. Playing with Nils brings some peace to mind.

Mount Fuji
When riding towards Mount Fuji, in the west of Tokyo, I am again amazed by how densely populated this area around Tokyo is. With my tent at hand now, I hope to find a nice and quiet spot it the mountains, but it is dark before I reach them. Near a lake I find a spot, which in regular terms would be described as a garden, but not in Japan. I manage to put up my tent in the dark and have an early night. During that night it starts to rain, and it never ends during the next day. Completely soaked and my hands wrinkled from cycling in the rain all day, I treat myself to a nice and warm youth hostel. The weather clears a little the next day, and I have a great time riding along the Fuji Five Lakes. They are supposed to have great views on mount Fuji, with 3776 meters the highest mountain in Japan, but due to clouds, I only get a quick five minutes look at a cloudy top, before Fuji-san disappears again. The ride back to Tokyo on the 7th of September is a breeze, with 40km going downhill most of the time and a nice ride along the Tamagawa river. Along the way I am asked to advice on the interior decoration of a bar that will open in ten days. The owner wanted a European interior, and I happened to pass by. How would you know you are at 1628 M altitude by this sign?

On the 7thst of September I arrive in Tokyo to visit Hinako (a friend from the workcamp) and her parents. They live along the Tamagawa river. We exchange photos and talk about the camp. The next day it is only a short ride along the same river to visit Ayumi. We met during my internship in Vietnam and she just happened to visit her parents this week, coming from New York. A very nice coincidence. I use the weekend to see some more of Tokyo, and pay another visit to Markus, Eiko and Nils.
Making reservations for the boat to Tokushima on Shikoku turns out to be quite a challenge, as the operator does not speak any English. With the help of my phrasebook I puzzle together the words that are necessary to make the reservation, like ashita (tomorrow), Tokyo, Tokushima, feri (ferry), yoyaku (reservation), jitensha (bicycle) and hitori-de (alone). We will see if this works out.

On the 12th of September I leave Tokyo. My reservation is fine and the next day I arrive in Tokushima on Shikoku. When searching for a place to put up my tent that evening, I hear a strange sound coming from a temple. People are practicing for the festival. I am invited to put up my tent at the temple and stay the next day to join. The festival itself is to welcome the spirits to the town. I help to welcome them and am invited by an 65 year old man to stay the night at his house. We have a great time, although communication is difficult.
Japan has some funny roadsigns From Tokushima I ride along the south coast of Shikoku, with on my left side a great ocean view and on my right mountains. This is a very nice area to cycle in, when it is not raining. Together with Akira, a Japanese cyclist, I wait for the rain to pass. He is cycling around Japan and has already covered 5500KM. I have only done around 1100 so far. We ride together for a day and say goodbye then. Along the way I meet some pilgrims, who walk a circuit of 88 temples on Shikoku. Most modern pilgrims do not walk, but travel by bus. The workplace during the workcamp

Just a quick update from Fukuoka, before I leave for Okinawa tomorrow. I cross from Uwajima to Beppu on Kyushu. Beppu is the hot spring town of Japan and attracts a lot of tourists. It has wonderful hot springs with fantastic colors. Via Yufuin I make my way to Mt Aso, the largest volcano crater in the world, so large, that you don't even notice it. I put my tent up at a camp site that night and party with a group of 50 students from Kagoshima. The next day I pay a visit to the dentist in Kumamoto, as my tooth hurts like hell. The dentist drills a hole, cuts my nerve and puts some medicine in it, not a very pleasant treatment. In Nagasaki I look for the Dutch connection and find it: RAIN. The whole two days that I am in Nagasaki, it rains. Nagasaki has some interesting sites connected to the Dutch history, especially Dejima Island. A lot is done to celebrate the 400 years relationship between Japan and the Netherlands. The A-Bomb museum in Nagasaki is a very impressive reminder of another time. On my way to Fukuoka in the north of Kyushu, I pay a visit to Nagasaki Holland Village. At first it is nice to see some Dutch buildings like a windmill and an old sailing ship, but soon the touristy level of it all becomes way too much for me. Add the continuous 'draaiorgel' music and you have the complete overkill. In Fukuoka I enjoy the hospitality of the Ogata family and receive a second treatment for my tooth and hope it will be OK now.

Okinawa is a tropical island, halfway "mainland" Japan and the island of Taiwan. Due to the distance from the mainland, the fact that it has been a separate kingdom and the American presence, it has quite a different character than the rest of Japan. My first two days I spend arranging the continuation from my trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong. This creates a chicken and egg situation, (which is first?). In order to get my visa and boat ticket to Taiwan, I need a flight out of Taiwan. The cheapest options are to arrange such a flight in Taiwan, but I cannot get to Taiwan without the flight out. In the end, I manage to get a faxed copy of the ticket, which is good enough to get to Taiwan, where I can pick up the actual ticket. See here the troubles involved in travelling. My tooth is doing fine although it still hurt for three days after the last treatment.
After this hard work, I treat myself to some snorkeling and a few days on a beautiful beach on a small island just off the coast of Okinawa. I continue riding my bike around Okinawa. Just after having reached the north cape of the island, I am invited for a coffee when the night starts to fall. My artistic host has build his own house (several buildings) over the last two decades, including a beautiful garden with a large pond. I spend the night there and the next morning I help hem with repairing his water supply. We inspect two KM of waterpipes, all the way to the source, a small riverstream near the mountain top. When walking up, he suddenly stops me and points me to the snake a few meters ahead of us. With one smash of the spade, he kills the snake and warns me about the deadly (green) habu snakes (other than the one he just killed). With this firm warning in mind I continue my trip. As I am just beginning to make speed on a downhill part, a green snake appears on the road, 10 to 15 meters in front of me. Full brakepower and a U-turn bring me to safety again. After the snake disappears, I continue with a racing heart and drive on the middle of the road. No more snakes appear, but every peace of wood on the road now resembles a snake.
My last night in Japan, I have dinner with Masahiro, an announcer for the Japanese TV, whom I met earlier when snorkeling. In his favorite restaurant, we enjoy a delicious dinner and meet some very interesting people. One of them is an Okinawa opera singer, who sings for us part of an opera and an Italian love song.

Cycling Trip Shikoku and Kii, Japan 1999
Japan Cycling Navigator
Cycle Touring in Japan, Kyushu & Shikoku 1991
Tomer Gurantz's Japan 2002 Bicycle Trip

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