Japan is my next destination! I wanted to go here anyway on that trip. Now it is just a little bit earlier. In the remaining three days before I fly, I try to prepare as much as possible for what I am planning to do: out of the steppe directly into the worlds biggest metropolis Tokyo, well knowing that this will be a shock anyway.
At the airport I already learn two very japanese things: they are very friendly and helpfull and they are very correct. Many want to help me as I try to find my way with the bicycle across the airport to the train station. But there I have no chance getting on the train without the bike been properly packed up. That is what the rules say. When I am back at the station one hour later with the bike wrapped in plastic I am allowed on the train.
When I arrive in downtown Tokyo the bicycle packed and I want to start cycling I almost have an accident: Of course, they drive on the left side here! But then the ride to my hotel is very nice. There is a lot of bicycles everywhere. The traffic is not chaotic and hectic at all, but very relaxed. I like it so much, that I start for a nightly bike tour across town that very first evening.
For a couple of days I explore Tokyo: the worlds biggest fish market, the parks with their temples, entire quarters where you can buy the latest electronics.
But the bicycle tour I want to start in the north. With the night train I go up to Sapporo on the northern most island: Hokkaido.
Sapporo, that name is very much linked to the victory of the skiing idols of my youth. Russi, Nadig & Co. just won everything here in the winter Olympics. But now the town doesn't look like a winter sport place at all, as it is just above sea level. Later on the way to Fugano (where the ski world cup stopps every year) I see those huge walls to protect the roads against snowdrifts. In the winter, when the sibirian cold is coming down, they get huge amounts of snow here.
But now it is autumn. The wide forrest has beautiful colours. Here on Hokkaido there is still at lot of wilderness. It is by far the least populated island.
Just before I start looking for a place to camp on the first night I see those big signs warning of bears. What? there are bears here? Apparently there are wild brown bears here on Hokkaido. Fortunately I don't see one but lots of deers, foxes and squirrels.
The first word in japanese that I learn, I know instantly, will be my favourite one: Onsen. Onsens are hot springs, there are hundreds of them all over Japan. They come in very different ways: from luxury spa hotels to simple hot pools out in the wild, whereas I rather prefer the second type. To soak in one of those pools after a long day on the bicycle is simple the best.
In the shops there are remarkably few imported things. Almost everything is japanese. But the selection is huge again. But just what is all that stuff? With half the products I simply have no idea what it is: meat, vegetables, fruits or fish? Only trying helps to find out and there are quite some surprises. The same goes with restaurants. Mostly I can point to what I would like. But ever so often I still don't know afterwards what I have just eaten... But it is almost always very good!
In the first days I cycle in the center of the island from one national park to the next, from one lake to the other. Great scenery and cycling through that colourful forrest is simply a dream. But it is often quite tough. The hills are not really high here but there are lots of climbs. On the last days I cycle along the coast to the south. In the evening I always find a nice place on the beach. Nothing against beach holidays then, if it only wasn't for the sand...
With the ferry I cross over to Honsu, the main island. On the very first meters I realize already that everything is more cramped here. The roads are no more as wide and in the towns the houses are very close next to each other. The traffic also increased. On the main roads it is not easy as a cyclist. But I hardly stay there.
In the center of the island it is also very hilly with lots of forrest and agriculture. Here I always find a good route with little traffic.
The extremes, good and bad, are often very close to each other on a cycling tour. Maybe one reason why I like it so much. It has rained all night long. with my weather-optimism I think that it will probably stop once I start cycling.
But it does not. In the continous rain I cycle 1000 vertical meters up to a pass. Atop the road is blocked. What's that? In spring there has been a strong earthquake here in Japan. I am now exactly in the epicenter of then. Many roads are still impassable. The only way out of here is the way back where I came! I am wet and cold by now and now the news that I have to go back all the way. My mood has hit rock-bottom.
I decide to go back to the camp site I had seen just before the pass. The warden who doesn't speak a word english is quite surprised when I turn up there. There are of course no other guests. But the tent I may not set up. He tells me it is much to cold and wet outside, I can stay in his hut for the night. Later we go to the nearby onsen. As we lie in the hot pool staring into the dark, foggy night we both smile: nowhere else I would rather want to be at that moment! Back at the hut I show him pictures on my laptop and we drink a big bottle of sake together having lots of fun. Afterwards he cooks me a fantastic meal with self found mushrooms.
It is those moments that really make out travelling and give a country a face. Sometimes you can feel isolated here in Japan. The japanese are often reserved, certainly also because of the language difficulties. It is often not easy to see behind the facade. But behind they are incredibly friendly and helpful people. Today Japan got a face for me.
I was quite curious how good it is possible to camp wild in a country so densely populated like Japan. I am surprised how many remote places I come to and findig a good place is never a problem. Ski slopes have become one of my favorite. There is very good camping here as the brushwood is often so thick, I cannot simply go set up the tent in the forrest. And there is often an Onsen close by.
I have found a good rhythm. At noon I always pass a town, maybe have a look at a temple or castle and in the afternoon I go back up into the mountains on a small road. There is lots of those remote pass roads and it is just fantastic to cycle through that colorful forrest right now on those little used roads. Of course that all comes with a price: although the passes are not quite as high here, I cover vertical meters as hardly in any other country before.
My map tells me, that the road to Kamikochi in the Japan Alps National Park may only be used by taxis or busses. Can I go up there at all? But I get waves through with no problem. two minutes later I am not sure anymore whether I should be happy about that. It is once more a tunnel, but this one is a real cyclists nightmare: narrow, 1.3kg long and with a constant 12% climb! When I reach the top I am quite exhausted, physically and mentally.
At the end of the road I cannot believe my eyes: Its about as busy as on a main railway station, but all hikers. Of course all perfectly equipped. It is sunday afternoon and after a weekend in the mountains they all now take the bus back to Tokyo. Not long after it is quite in the park. In the next days I do some great hiking to the peaks in the park.
The big mountains I have now left. Time to go into some of those big cities, otherwise you start to believe me that there are none here :-)
Cat & Paul live and work here close to Kyoto for one year. I met them on Hokkaido and they invited me to stay with them for some days. It is a welcoming change to have a roof over my head and some company for some time.
During my stay I explore Kyoto. There are more then 2000 temples and shrines here, no easy task to decide what to see. Even better I like the temples of Nara. Among others the biggest wooden building can be seen here.
Back on the road I follow the rocky northern coast for some days before I head down to Hiroshima.
This town will probably always be remebered as the place where the first atomic bomb was dropped. And that is good so, there are things that must not get forgotten.
The museum and the memorial are very moving.
Over a whole system of bridges I hop from one island to the next, leaving Honsu towards Shikoku. The island is well known for its pilgrimage following 88 temples all around the island. On my way I often meet honsu (pilgrims).
At first I am a little disappointed about the north of the island. Too much industry and (heavy) traffic. But as soon as I go to the center of the island I like it much better. Here I find lush nature, gorges, roads with no traffic and steep passes.
Today I put up my tent next to a house that I thought was unoccupied. But later the owner turns up. He is very pleased to find me here in his backyard and invites me for dinner. It is self shot wild pig!
In the south of the island there are some great beaches. They are well known for their big waves. No wonder there are a lot of surfers out in the water. I simply go for a refreshing bath in the waves.
If there is something I will not get used to here in Japan, then it is those loudspeaker annouces. Almost all of Japan seems to be covered be a loudspeaker system. No matter how remote I camp, in the woods or on the beach, at 5pm they always become active. Mostly it is just some electronic melody that is meant to tell the time. But sometimes it is a real siren followed by an announcement. In the beginning I get scared a couple of times as I honestly believe there is a fire or a tsunami coming.
With a ferry I cross over to the last island I want to visit here in Japan: Kyushu. At first I follow the coast down south. There are some more great beaches here. It is meanwhile mid of november. If the weather is good it is still very nice for cycling and quite warm. Today it is so warm that I enjoy a bath in the sea in the evening. Next day I leave the coast and cycle up to a vulcano at 1200m. When I look ou of my tent the next morning it is snowing!
Now that was really a quick change. Within one day the temperature dropped dramatically and it is now really cold. While I cycle back up north from vulcano to vulcano I can finally make use of all my warm cloth.
Then I reach Fukuoka after having cycled 6000km all across Japan. It is the last place I will be here in Japan and I enjoy some easy days and try to get defrosted again.