Flag waving, rythmic hand directional guards litter the road work sites, metro stations and traffic laiden roads of Tokyo. We watch the 4 traffic wardens synchronise the flow of traffic and pedestrians across a busy retail zone. We have finally arrived in Tokyo after 10 weeks on the road.
This is our third and last post of our travels in Japan and as we sit on our ship, cruising the transpacific ocean, we have the time and space to look back at some of the highlights on our last leg of Japan. We will explain how and why we are on the ship later.
We left Kanazawa with further rain due and headed along the smaller roads to Toyama prefecture where we hit the coast and a 85km cycle path. Camping next to the path gave us a shelter and a toilet, all the 2 ideal accessories for free camping. The shelter came in handy as we could assemble the tent under it in the pouring rain and run out and pitch it without us and it getting too wet. It also was great for drying our wet clothes overnight. Only a yappy small dog seemed to have been bothered that we where there, disturbing the green space and his territory.
There are no litter bins anywhere. The cities and villages are spotless. But there are many riversides, roadsides and country hills littered with garbage. Flytipping does exit here and Japan does not have a complete clean bill of health. Tourists only going to the big cities will be seduced in thinking that Japans metropolis is the cleanest place on earth. We do inform them that outside of these cities you will see a more familiar and unpleasant scene. Saying this Japan has been the cleanest and most safe place. To travel for 10 weeks never thinking about safety or what may go missing has been a reality check on how the West has become a turbulent and at times unsafe place in comparison to here.
After the well designed cycle path the road turned into a series of partially open tunnels as the road clung to the cliff sides. The terrain had become very cliff like and not the best roads for cycling. But cliffside roads never have the luxury of cycle paths or even a hard shoulder, so it’s a matter of heads down, and cautious cycling until we reach safer tarmac. We continued our spirit of free camping near to Japanese bathhouses (onsen) on many occasions and these always came at the right time after several days of no washing or cold wet days in the saddle.
The mountain and hill sides resemble a ‘a painting by numbers’ canvas where the subtle blend of verdant hues bleed into each other. This is controlled nature where beautiful cedar, oaks, pines and bamboo sit in their groupings next to each other on the hillsides. The blend of colours and tree species have been carefully selected to create a piece of living art.
As we left the coast the Japanese Alps lingered in the distance. Snow covering a large proportion of the surface we knew the next few days might be testing. In fact it was like cycling through another climatic zone. The mountains reaching over 3000 metres rose majestically competing with each other to be the highest peak. There was a series of rather scary tunnels that cut through the hills and many unsuitable for cycling, but no other option. It has been a lottery with tunnels, you get ones with paths or hard shoulders and then there are tunnels those with nothing, dark and long. The road sliced through theses hills and at the other end we emerged as a snow storm hit us. From sleet to snow we took cover by a rest stop until it passed. Tunnels disappeared and we were know in beautiful countryside and the sight of ski lifts appeared. We decided to stay in a guesthouse near a ski resort and bypass camping. Which turned into two nights and during the first night over 20cm of snow fell. We woke to a whiteout and Mother Nature had kindly placed us in a perfect place to take advantage of a rest day. The guesthouse was great with a communal small kitchen, an onsen and our room was more like an apartment with lots of space. On our rest day we investigated the ski result of Habuka and walked through the snow filled meadows.
No further snow fell and temperatures rose which brought about rain, so the path was clear to continue. There were no more dangerous tunnels just breathtaking scenery and the temptation of skiing crossed out tired bodies. I had had slight knee pain that kept recurring so we bypassed a downhill thrill and kept on pedalling. Our next stop was in the city of Matsumoto and our home for the night was in a park high above the city which happened to be in the midst of its cherry blossom. This brought about many people picnicking, playing games or couples posing under the blossom and snapping away. Even four rabbits were brought out in celebrations! We managed to go unnoticed as we camped away from the bustle of cherry admirers and felt lucky to be camping in such a beautiful spot. Matsumoto is on the tourist map with its grand wooden castle and museums. It is nestled in a valley with mountain vistas cradling the city. We stumbled upon a great cafe which combined letterpress printing, bookstore and a general cafe over 2 floors.
Several kilometres out from the centre was the Ukiyo-e museum of woodblock prints. There were many woodblock prints in the gallery and a short documentary explaining the process and craftsmanship. The film highlighted the use of washi paper from Echizen which we had previously visited and this helped solidify the importance of such handmade paper for this process. The guide book had mentioned about the archive of woodblocks and books on display which were not shown. We were told you needed to email an request in advance!
Our route continued through the valleys and the mountains began to lower there heights and shortly we were in more undulating terrain. We headed into the Shosenkyo Gorge area (Kofu region), as we had read it was worth a side trip. A long climb took us to the river and finally to the gorge which was blanketed in spring colours and freshly sprung new leaves. The palette of colours ranged from pinks, to burnt umber to lime greens, the riverside cliffs and hills were ablaze with these colour ways. A picture of a large bear was pinned to a tree with the wording ‘Bear Sighting’. We camped in the gorge the night and hoped the notice was fake as we drifted to sleep with the rain hitting the tent, hoping bears don’t like the rain.
With No bear sightings we woke, packed and continued away from the gorge glad of a good sleep and with no stories to tell of a bear. Mt Fuji was our next place to cycle to and this comes with hard work of climbing and the prospect of after all the cycling it could be covered in thick cloud. After a long climb and a nasty tunnel we came out through the pass to the most stunning jaw dropping sight. It stopped us in our tracks. Mt Fuji in all its glory was bang straight in front of us as if it had been painted on a backdrop and hung outside the tunnel. Now, I know why this volcano has been painted, written about and idolised for centuries. The hard climb and horrid tunnel were passed and we had Mt Fuji to drink in until the clouds covered it. We found the free camping spot marked on the map and bedded down. At sunrise you could hear people milling around the lakeside, cameras snapping and a Japanese busyness taking shape. Sleepy eyes I wondered to the lakeside and again Mt Fuji was clear as day and its majestic reflection was in the lake. We were extremely lucky to experience another sighting of the volcano.
The quiet roads leading away from the five lake area were a pleasure to cycle on as they cut through forested areas which had grown on lava rocks and rolling meadows. Our first meadows and pastures in Japan. It was a day full of animal sightings at long last. Stables with horses and cattle and sheep were living off this fertile area. We even visited a guide dog centre at the base of Mt Fuji meadows. We were kindly showed around the facilities and were able to see puppies and dogs in training. The centre has been designed with space, light and with attention given to the blind visitors with many tactile way finding surfaces.
With several days left before our hostel reservation in Tokyo we headed to the Izu Peninsula. Both tired and fed up of the rain we climbed over the hill range on the peninsula and headed to Ito, the east coast to find a bed for the night. K’s Hostel was in a traditional large Japanese building which was like no other hostel. Tatami floors, lower level furniture, futon beds with paper screen dividers and a crafted wooden structure made this hostel authentic. This was a beautiful house and a rare accommodation find on a hostel budget.
The next night after a short cycle day we opted to sleep out in our bags and with the tarp as cover from the sea spray. I love to sleep without the tent at times, waking up looking at the clear sky and hearing the sound of the waves is melodic and truly gives you the feeling of freedom but it normally comes at a price! Exposed areas are welcome places for insects. Biting your face is not great and that morning we both had a few war wounds.
With the prospect of approaching a city with 30 million people we were both daunted by the metropolis ahead. But this is Japan, designed, considered and peaceful after all. We reached Kawasaki, 25 kilometres from Tokyo were we camped by a riverside in full view of early morning exercising Japanese. One very old lady approached us and asked our place of home and another younger man enquired about our trip. The only people bothered by us there as we went about packing was the group of men about to play softball, as we seemed to be on the edge of the pitch!
The last 25 Kms into Tokyo was pleasant, yes the roads were busy but no horns beeping and certainly no road rage in sight. A cycling icon on the tarmac lead us through the city and finally to our resting place for 4 nights. We had arrived in Tokyo. A city full of extremes from neon lights and shopping infused areas to shrines, temples and manicured gardens. You could get drunk on Tokyo’s split personalities but we opted for a more serene time. We visited 2 paper places (in following blog) and met up with one of our ex students (Akane) who kindly guided us to some special bookstores and print shops. Our hostel (K’s House Tokyo) was perfect with access to a small kitchen, small dorm room, laundry and free hot drinks. We met Shirley who kept us entertained and educated on many Japanese ways of living.
We cycled away from the city which in fact merged with another city of Yokohama where we were meeting up with Chris & Dea, cycling friends we met in several countries along the way. We had a kind offer of a bed from James & Tamara (and 16 years old scrumpy the cat) in Yokohama (acquaintances of Chris), which we gratefully accepted. Their hospitality was welcomed with beer, gin & tonics and great food as we mentally prepared for a new chapter.
The harbour of Yokohama was filled with the big ship Celebrity Millennium. This was to be our home for the next 2 weeks as we go on a voyage across the Pacific to Vancouver, Canada. 2 weeks to recharge, eat, sleep, exercise and be entertained until we reach the shores of Canada.
As our bikes are wheeled into our cabin we place them on the balcony, cover them with our tarp and begin to unwind.
Distance cycled in Japan (total 10 weeks): 3200km
Spends approximately £19 each a day (average over 72 days, included hostels, hotels, food, onsens etc). 2 main ferry crossings plus bike carriage each £130. Flights Taiwan to Okinawa (included bike baggage) approx £150 each.
Brake pads changed both bikes front and back
Puncture total J: 2
Total distance cycled to date approximately 14,000km
Below: manhole covers for each prefecture.
All photography by Jack Blake & Barbara Salvadori 2018©