Planting season in the rice fields

A few choices of kimchi

May ’14

It was only a few hours and the ferry had carried me to Korea. After such a long time in Japan I was more then ready for something new. Docking at the port, I could already see the sheer number of lined up apartment towers that are typical of korea’s bigger towns, a sight that reminded me of what I have seen in Hong Kong years ago.

Straight out of customs at the international ferry terminal in Busan, I logged in a fast and free WiFi connection to contact my host. Technology is omnipresent in South Korea, to me much more then in Japan.

Kenny picked me up on his bike and we rode straight to my first Korean bbq. Heaven. Spicy food, fresh herbs and veggies for all. I liked the food in Japan but this was just different, fulfilling a lot of what I had miss for more then half a year. Over the month I have spent in Korea, food kept being good, surprising and cheap enough. From the staples like funny chicken & beer, to beef tartare, noodle stuffed intestines, pork legs, ramen bowls and all the side dishes. The side dishes! Probably the best thing about going to a restaurant in Korea is that whatever you order, might be a simple soup, it always come with plenty of small ‘tapas’ style side plates. There might be kimchi, or tofu, or cooked peanuts or beans. And many times, it’s kind of all-you-can-eat. Combined with the expensive price of groceries, it was really hard to justify not going out for lunch.

Oh, and koreans? They love to eat, and drink, and eat, and drink, and repeat.. A typical night out probably goes like this: choose a restaurant and eat a full meal there. At the same time pour down some drinks, like beer and soju (the local hard spirit) or so-me, the mix of them both. Then quickly get out and choose a new place, probably a restaurant with a different food speciality and start again. Repeat until you can’t walk, can’t eat, or both. There is also take out if you want to finish this at home. About that, they do delivery too, with real plates they come and pick up the nest day. Impressive.

Skipping most of the hectic traffic with a short train ride, I then made my way out of Busan on the bike path of the 4 Rivers Trail, a combination of cycling paths covering a big part of the country. Most of them following big rivers. It’s possible for example to cycle from Busan to Seoul on this path alone in just a few days. Information in english is scarce, but the way is quite well marked most of the time. You can also accumulate stamps along the way in a special booklet and earn a medal for competing some sections…

They must deliver quite a few of these rewards because I met a lot of cyclists on this path. Koreans seems to be keen cyclists and go all out with high-end mountain bikes (although the trail is mostly flat and paved) and full-body Lycra clothing. In combination with the ubiquitous facemask and sunglasses, I renamed this ‘ninja cycling’. But this also meant the cycling culture is developing quite well in the country, and combined with the general friendliness of koreans, it meant people were always very welcoming of the lone cyclist. Koreans also tend to speak better english then Japanese, or at least it’s more common, so it was very nice.

To contrast the greatness of the cycling paths, wind was there to crap the day. In the next week I would head west, then south, back north, west and finally east, the wind always changing with me, ending up in 6 out of 7 days of strong headwind. I cursed at it a lot, which didn’t help much, and kept going. Korea is just as mountainous as Japan, and it seems the gusts like to come down it’s tight valleys.

I veered off the cycling part quite fast and made my way west to the island of Namhae, then back north along another river bike trail, and the west across the mountains. The scenery was nice, although not extraordinary, the highlight of the day often being the food at lunch and a nice camping spot. Korea, like Japan, felt quite safe and wild camping was never a problem.

I got to Gumi, an industrial town, quite tired of the windy week and got lucky with a last minute Warmshowers host were I could relax a bit.

I was back again on the main cycling path and went up east to visit Andong, then backtracked across the mountains to the west to check out Beopjusa temple, a touristy but well worth seeing spot. From there a few days got me back on the main river and straight into Seoul where I spent a bit more then a week waiting for my kazak visa, meeting some friends and mostly relaxing. Apparently much easier to get in Seoul then in China, the visa for Kazakhstan took 7 days, around 30$ and was pretty straightforward.

Apart from enjoying even more food in Seoul and seeing a few of the must seen sights, I went for a quick hike in the mountains north of town. It’s a bit foggy, or smoggy, and the views are half the fun. The real sport here is people-watching, amazed by the incredibly popular outdoor fashion where hords of mainly older folks will be fully outfitted with all the latest clothes and tech for just a few hours walk. Gloves, Gore-Tex and facemasks included. While riding across the country I was constantly amazed how a poor middle sized town with barely anything in it would have at least a dozen big brand outdoor shop, with real gear and real prices. While koreans enjoy the mountains quite a bit, it seems even more like a big fashion statement, and everyone of all age are caught in it.

The week brought me a new visa in the pocket and some needed rest, (I had mostly recovered from the knee pain I had contracted a month prior in Japan). Ready, I headed for Incheon and the ferry to China. Getting there is half the fun they say…

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A handy knife

Okonomiyaki on a stick!

April ’14

Leaving the Kansai region, I followed the nearby coast to cross into Shikoku, one of the main islands of Japan. It was the first time I was leaving Honshu since Hokkaido up north, and this time for good. There are a few massive bridges that cross onto the island, although they are mostly no-go for cyclists. On the way, I stopped in Himeji to see it’s famous castle, but it was all covered and locked down due to a multi-year renovation effort. The work being done there is quite impressive, but I’ll have to come back in the future… ah, yet another reason. I stopped on the smaller island of Shodoshima, Japan’s olives capital, before another ferry brought me to Shikoku.

And how to say, it has to be the best I’ve rode in Japan. Really quiet mountain passes, magical looking forest, tight valleys, hill-side perched village and more. The locals, while still thick in Japanese politeness, were even more friendly then usual. Anyway I just had a good time, seeing stuff I had waited to see in Japan for a long time now.

From Tokushima, I made it to the Iya Valley with it’s beautiful gorges and delicious hard tofu, through the pass at Tsuguri-san and then over a few more to the sea. Had a funny encounter with some other touring cyclists, a rare sight, enjoyed some last flower blossoms in the mountains and even got offered some fish, a great gift which proved to be quite a camping cooking challenge. I managed a few days of surfing, probably the only opportunity this year, and rode the coast to Kochi for a little break. The road there is filled with ‘ohenro’, pilgrims that are walking around the island to complete a circuit of 88 temples, usually walked in around 3 months. With their cone-shaped bamboo hat and white blouse, they are quite easy to spot! It’s also spring in the fields, so cheap sweet vegetables were everywhere on the roadside, another thing I didn’t saw much in Japan.

The road west was mostly another set of pretty mountain passes and valleys, with special mention to the alpine road at the Tengu Plateau, where Japan pretends to be New-Zealand for a moment. From there, to the coast, and a last ferry brought me to Kyushuu, the final island of Japan for me. Fighting some rain and a building knee pain, I only did a short trip there. I wished to see more, but I was eager to move on to Korea. After enjoying some onsen time in the hot spring city of Beppu, I climbed up to Aso, a town and mountain region located inside a massive crater. Quite impressive, even if most of it was drowned in a thick cloud and fog cover. It’s a pretty volcanic region and onsen villages are scattered all over the place. Kurosawa being one pretty example, although most of the accommodation there is ‘honeymoon-priced’ I would say.

Finally, the road took me to Fukuoka, the big coastal city from where the ferry to Korea departs. After booking my tickets, I spent two days trying to enjoy what I though I would miss about Japan. Not an easy task really.

And that’s it. After more then 7 months in Japan, I boarded the ship, the custom official clearly remembering me that it would invalidate the rest of my visa, and sailed away. Japan had been an incredible experience, but now it was time for a change.

Alright, gimmie my kimchi!

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Start of the sakura season


March ’14 to Avril ’14

After a brief stop in Nagano city, I made it back to the quiet village of Ueno in the Gunma prefecture. I had left my bike there for the winter, in the great company of my japanese friends Tsune and Miho. Just enough to say hi again and remember why I had stopped there for so long before, then I hit the road again. Had to get my feet moving fast, had the feeling I could get stuck there again very easily.

The pain of the winter’s riding came in my knees while I got used to the long cycling days again. A few freezing nights in the southern part of the Kita Alps brought me to region near Nagoya, then into Kansai. The roads were a good mix of quiet mountains ones lined with amazing forest of tall pines and bamboo, as well as wide and busy valleys that are typical of Japan.

I made a quick stop in Nagoya to plan ahead a little bit. I was going into Kansai right as the cherry blossom season was coming, the time when hanami, or flower viewing, is very popular. It’s one of the most touristy time of the year there, and people go spend all day in the park, sitting under the flowering trees to drink, eat and enjoy other’s company. Quite thrilled at the idea first, I realised it was going to complicate my visit as every single cheaper accommodations were fully booked for Kyoto, the main cultural staple of the region. Fortunately, with the help of great Warmshower hosts in Shiga and then Osaka, I was able to explore the region and enjoy the blossoms myself. I even got to use the very efficient train system of Japan, something I couldn’t do with my bike.

Kyoto can be quite a temple overload, but it’s still much worth seeing. I made stop in Nara too, where very tamed deer abounds in the parks near the main temple, scavenging cookies from excited, or scared, tourists. The pretty white flowers made the very busy roads of the Kansai region a bit more tolerable, slowing me down for yet another photo opportunity.

I played cricket. Got drunk with old mans. Got a glimpse of traditional archery. Found some ‘homesick’-inducing belgian beer. Climbed the most ridiculously steep road I’ve ever seen, and then fumbled my way down on the other side, water-cooling my brakes every few minutes has their were squealing to death in all new terrible tones. I even managed to obtain my Chinese visa through all of it. Not bad.

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Miho & Tsune

November & December ’13

It was going to be simple. I was going to stay a few days with a couchsurfer in Kiryu, pick up my replacement part for my gas burner from there, and then spend a few days with another host in the mountains nearby. From there I’d head for Nagano, before the snow blocked the road, to find a job for the winter.

I had it all planned out, and actually the first half went pretty much like that. But that’s usually when travelling gets you, and pulls out a surprise. I got my parts and cycled to the mountains.

When I got to Uneo village to meet my hosts, Tsune & Miho, in their little cafe, they had an event coming up for the weekend. I though I’d give a hand, for a few days. These few days became a week, then a bit more, and then some. In the end, the snow came to Nagano, and I had been in Ueno for a full month. Time had flown too fast and well, it was good time.

Indian Musical performance. Cooking. Kaki drying. K-truck driving. Dog walking-Cursing at a dog in japanese. Crazy kid slides. More cooking. Language learning. Cooking bread. Onsens. Cold, cold house. Soba beating. Tofu making. Single trails.

But at last, winter came. I found a job online in Hakuba, a ski town in the province of Nagano, left my bike in pension at the cafe, and took the train North. I could see snow on mountain tops. Sweet.

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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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