Temples of Nikko

November ’13

I was headed for the Pacific again, with expectation of a nice rugged coast. I went trough Tono village on the way, a nice mountain town worthy of a few days stop. But I was on my way south, trying to get there before the winter did. I escaped the busy road in favor of the old mountain route, saving another crazy tunnel at the same time. Nice and quiet.

Coming down on the ocean side of the range, I was fast confronted to my main problem with japanese coast. It’s busy, super busy. Big industrial city and narrow cliffed valleys means the camping space is pretty sparse. I headed for the local soccer field, but even there, it had been reclaimed for houses of a nearby project’s workers. Still, I wanted to gave the coast another chance before heading back to the mountains. But the next day proved worse, with even busier roads, more truck traffic and not much views.

Along the hilly road between each bays I started realizing the causes of all of this. In all of the bays’ flatland, construction was everywhere, prominent. More then 2 years later, in that region of Northern Japan, the destruction from the 2011 tsunami was still evident, I just had to realise it. A lot has been cleaned, but not much reconstructed. The scars aren’t so impressive anymore, but few destroyed walls scattered around, along with massive piles of debris act as good reminders. I was going back to the mountains.

I was now rushing southwards. If I wanted to be in the Japanese Alps before the winter to find a job in time, I had to hurry. I made it to the Yamagata prefecture, a few nice mountains passes in tow. At the start of my biggest day yet, I crossed my 3000th kilometer while entering Yamagata-city. That night, after a solid mountain pass, monkeys and a frigid descent, I made it in Ura Bandai my headlamp opening the way. The nights were turning quite cold up in the mountains.

And mountains there were more, with more rain and more wind to be enjoyed before I could get to Gunmna prefecture – the last one before my endpoint in Nagano. But there was also some sake to be drank, some incredible japanese hospitality to be enjoyed and incredible views to see. I made it to Nikko after a few days, to visit it’s UNESCO worthy temples, luckily dodging the crowds of the fall ‘colors’ season. There is also the best hostel in Nikko – Sumica Guesthouse – with the best hostel owners ever. Just go there. What hostel owners just give you cakes?

On the way up to the last pass, some very light snow felt down. A reminder of what to come for the next months.

When I made it to Gunma, I was expecting to spend a few days there. First, I had to pick up parts for my broken MSR pump, then I was gonna be on my way to Nagano. Not quite what happened.

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Selling crabs in Hakodate

Back in Honshu

October & November ’13

I let the typhoon pass while I relaxed a bit in Sapporo. Welcomed by a nice cyclist couple, it was hard not to enjoy the time there. The city proved to be of little interest except maybe for the cheap fresh seafood available there and the nice Historic Village on the edge of town. Built with authentic houses that were removed from their original location across the island, it’s worth a look. I find old japanese houses quite intriguing and beautiful, this was the perfect place to see some genuine examples of their impressive woodwork.

Leaving Sapporo towards the Shakotan Peninsula, the day was clear and the cycling fast. All well I thought, until realizing at my camping spot that my tent poles had fallen off the bike that day… Sweet. Scrambling around the park with my headlamp didn’t help. Not more then cycling most of the way backwards that same night. I woke up a bit tired the next morning, and left Sapporo for the second time, new tent in hand.

«Tunnels». One word to describe one my biggest gripe of cycling in Japan. Always present, inconsistent, narrow, loud. Combined with the biggest danger of them all, traffic, they are a cyclist’s daytime nightmare. The japanese coasts are filled with them, and they seem happy to dig one-out just to save the slightest bend in the road. Your warned now.

Heading south, I took a small break from the said coasts to visit Niseko, Hokkaido’s ski mecca. Niseko is a small mountain itself, over-looked by Mt. Yotei and it’s perfect volcano-cone shape. While there I somehow pondered about how, in about more than a month in Japan, I hadn’t tasted Sake yet… An error. Much lighter and better tasting then I first though. They even sell some small bottles in the combinis…

The southwest coast of Hokkaido brought me to Hakodate through some heavy rainfalls, but it proved to be one the quietest and most enjoyable place I had cycled yet. Being able to listen to anything else than the whoosh of passing cars made me realized how much I missed it. Things to remember; Gas station staff are way too helpful and nice to wet cyclist in Japan. Also, 4 sausage dogs in a hostel is, well, a lot of sausage dogs for a hostel.

The boat back to Honshu. End of October.

Compared to the overnight ferry I took a few weeks earlier, the one back to the main island from Hokkaido is a crappy affair. Plastic covered-sofa and ramen selling machines are the good parts. Well, it was cheap and got me there in time, that’s enough.
The north part of Honshu is called Tohoku. It’s a beautiful patchwork of mountains with one or two valleys running from North to South. With a little effort, you can find some small roads zipping through the multiple passes, showcasing the best of what fall has to offer. The colored leaved were in peak season, quite enjoyable when combined with other good stuff like big crater lakes, apple fields and some nice local beer. Traveling in the off-season also brings some opportunities, like camping on the lake’s beach right in front of the brewery, while enjoying some craft beer and a free wifi connection in your tent!

Heading back to main valley in the Iwate Prefecture I got caught in some heavy rain again. It was just starting to be tolerable when my back tire went straight flat. Pissing down rain, growing darkness and no shoulder meant for good fun. It got even worse when I realized my tire was starting to crack along the sidewall, causing the tube to pinch out. Duct-tape saved the day again and I could make it to the next big town. (I did find a new same-model tire the next day with great luck. Since then, Schwalbe has honored the warranty, shipping me 2 new tires. In Canada though.)

I got in the ‘small’ town of Hanamaki just on the evening of Halloween, which is a bit pointless to mention as there was no candy-hungry dressed-up kids in sight at all. Still, I got to my host house wearing my Kimono and an pumpkin beanie! Trick or threat Japan!

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October ’13

After waiting the rain for 2 days in Biei, I cycled up to Fukiage-Onsen in freezing-cold temperatures and thick fog. I had some hopes to climb in the Daisetsuzan National Park the next day with, hopefully, better weather. There is some kind of hostel at the Onsen there, where I met a Tcheck/Japanese party planning to go up there the next day.

We got up early, and with good sign of fair weather in the darkness we headed up on the trail. The weather turned out perfect, an excellent timing, and we were on top of Tokachi-dake before we knew. The upper half was covered in thin snow from the last days storm, as were other mountains around. The view was incredible. The contrast in the colors too. Sugoi ne?

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The ferry’s shared room

City camping

Into fall

Biei’s Riders’ House

September & October ’13

Cycling out of the urban mess of Tokyo took some time, but finally I was riding on quieter roads. I had been in Japan for a week, but this was where it really started.

By lunch the weather wasn’t looking that good, so after loading up my bags with beer and tea cans, the small shop owner I stopped at, a bit baffled by my idea of vacations, was trying to give me a big blue tarp and a big lamp. I had to refuse some of that incredible japanese hospitality, but it was a good exemple of what was to come.

Made my way through the small road over the Yabutsu Pass and flyed down on the other side with great views on the sea, sunset and all. Next day, bluebird sky and awesome views of Mount Fuji-san got me at the ferry to Chiba penninsula. I stopped on the Pacific coast for a day, enjoying some great surf conditions, and started making my way up. I had a few hundred kilometers to go before reaching the ferry port in Oarai.

Head winds. Beaches. Traffic, lots of traffic.

I was lucky enough to be invited for dinner on two occasions by incredibly welcoming japanese couples who, then, also let me camp in their backyard. Great time to brush up my japanese language skills, although Google Translate was of great help too.

To Hokkaido

The 20 hours ferry up to Tomakomai city on Hokkaido is quite the nifty little affair. It ain’t any luxury cruise, but it’s well equipped for the touring cyclist. First up, the advantage of a ferry, over say; the plane or train, is that you just roll your bike in, and the added charge is minimal. No boxing, no dismantling, no messing around. Then, the ferry had nice amenities like a washing machine, and micro-wave and hot-water, japanese essentials. The cheapest option will have you share a big tatami room with other people, the local concept of dorm beds. A good way to meet people, being the only foreigner on the boat.

Get lost around ugly ferry port. Rainy weather. Coastal road. More traffic. Mountain pass. Four kilometer tunnel. Country-side. Finally. Cows and all.

After a few days on Hokkaido I started encountering some other cyclists, and mostly japanese one. They generally ride the terrible , typical local one-speed bike, are well-spirited and I’d say, a bit crazy. I met Edo in Kushiro and he introduced me to city camping. Thing is, you can pretty much camp anywhere in Japan, as long as it’s not private land, and they don’t care at all. (Well except that time I got woken up at 2 am by the police on the beach in Chiba, who, when they saw I was a tourist, proceeded to excuse themselve for bothering me and left…). So we headed straight for downtown and found a nice park near the train station. People walking by didn’t say a word, even happy to see us on some occasion. It’s awesome, it’s safe, go tour in Japan.

I spent about two weeks cycling around getting to Sapporo and had a good chance to explore Japan’s ‘wildest’ place. Here everybody is afraid of bears, you see wild foxes all the time, there is decent, farm-laden country-side (a rare thing in Japan), etc. Mountains, volcanoes, coast, it’s a great little mix. Don’t get too excited though, it’s still Japan, constant traffic is again an issue and you’re rarely more then 20 kilometers from a combini.
still, it’s worth going to and some areas are really quiet; I’ve actually managed to cycle for more than 5 minutes without seeing a car.

Outdoor Onsen. On the lake. Mountain passes. More rain. Mountain tops. Snow. Crazy hostel owner. Kimono give-away. Giant-Buddha.

Another staple for cyclist in the area are the Rider’s House, only found on Hokkaido island, it’s the real cheap accomodation with no fuss. Mostly for motorbike riders that abound here in the summer, they range from O.K. looking to a plain hole in the wall. Always a bit dodgy, and with a good caracter to them. What else would you expect for 5 dollars in Japan?

In the end, the last ride to Sapporo was a wet, rainy affair rewarded by an incredible stay with some great local cyclist family. Time for some fresh fish and a little break.

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Just so many small bars

Electric nigths

Busy Shinjuku Station

Septembre ’13

I’ve spent a full week exploring different parts of Tokyo. I didn’t have too much planning to do for the trip, just getting the usual maps and confirming that the ferry I wanted to take to Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, was real. It would be the perfect place to stack-up on things if you’d been gone for some time, but this is just the start, and there isn’t much I need yet.

Still I did a bit of shopping. Managed to lost a bearing cap on my bike pedal. Awesome sushi. A thousand weirdly-dressed teenage girls outside what seemed like a J-pop event. Crazy fish market. City view. Smog. And top it up with the Sri Lanka’s culture festival of Tokyo.

There’s a lot of concrete in Tokyo. On the sad, rainy days, it really hits. How all this grey is looking at you. But a lot of that is made up by a quantity of parks and temple grounds. There is so many of these temples and shrines, I think they count them by the thousand only in Tokyo. And it’s the woodwork on the temples, along with the roofing, that impresses me so much. The details in the carving and the red or often plain-colored wooden structure. The impressive curved roofs with their complex tile work. Always well calculated, never over-the-top, direct example of Japanese craftsmanship.

I spent the last night having dinner at an izakaya, a japanese style of small resto/bar. Without any pictures on the menu and no english speaking staff, it proved to be quite fun. If you’re alone, you’ll usually sit at the bar, which is also the kitchen. The waiters and cooks take your order directly and are always yelling for some reason. You start by getting a small rolled wet towel to clean your hands and face and you’re then offered an appetizer, like beans or cabbage, with your order of beer. After that, it’s time to practice your japanese food vocabulary. Here, words like ‘chicken’ and ‘pork’ are very useful. It’s good times, and it’s not too expensive. If you’re (un-)lucky like me, you’ll meet some japanese local and he’ll make you try nattō, japanese’s infamous fermented soy beans. Like chopped beans in a sticky mozzarella-like substance, it’s taste is horrible and it’s a very popular breakfast in the North. Yummy!

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