Rough Guide: Japan is an extremely developed country that has done an incredible job of preserving its culture. Temples, shrines and monuments are beautify maintained and preserved around the country. Cycling can be a bit difficult in the south as there is a lot of traffic. However vehicles pass with care and trucks will give you wide berth as well. Camping can be difficult and in many cities I had little choice but to put up my tent in a small corner of the city park. The country is extremely safe with very little theft and almost no violent crime. On a budget you can easily get by eating discounted sushi from large supermarkets and staying at local hot springs if you don’t want to camp. I traveled to Japan from Korea by boat Pusan city to Fukuoka. I then cycled north to Hagi, the south toe the island of Shikoku before heading to Hiroshima, Kyoto and finally Tokyo. I loved visiting the shrines and especially enjoyed the beaches and old city of Hagi. The Hiroshima monument is not to be missed. I spent one month cycling Japan during the month of December.
More from the blog below.
November 22, 2014
Traditional fountain found outside the local Jinja (Shrine) in Fukuoka. The Japanese practice a washing process similar to that of the Islamic tradition
My first impression of Japan was exchanging Korean
Won for Japanese Yen in the ferry terminal. Asking for small bills, the Japanese teller apologetically handed me a stack of older notes. Through the intercom she told me that these bills were over 20 years, and that she was all out of the newer notes. Passing a white envelope beneath the glass I looked inside to see what 20-year-old year Japanese yen looked like.Besides a crease in the center, none of the bills seemed to have any wear, and were all clean and free of any grime or graffiti. To my eye Japanese money that had been in circulation for over 20 years looked brand new. Little did I know that I was about to step into a country unlike any of those I had recently traveled to.
In the west we struggle for what seems to come so naturally in Japan. Everyone seems to take responsibility for their own actions and understands their input on society. Public transportation, renewable energy and reusing products is prevalent throughout the land, and there is an underlying sense of unity never before observed. It is almost as if everyone is working together to make Japan their home. I my 4 days I have witnessed so many random acts of kindness and generosity that it has rubbed off on my nomadic every man for himself mentality. In the countryside I watch elders playing with grandkids or sitting on stools in the yard while their son and daughter rake leaves. There are many villages that have literally been left untouched, with the older style homes, sometimes several hundred years old, with porcelain tiled roofs covered in decades of moss. Simple yet elaborate wooden entryways and sliding glass doors. The beauty of the past blends so well with cultures minimalist lifestyle, that I have trouble distinguishing between the old and new customs.
In contrast to Korea, I am completely in awe of the landscape and scenery of the southern regions of Kyushu and Honshu. I feel as if I am cycling through the scenic epitome of Asia, watching thick fog encapsulate lush green bamboo forests, and clear turquoise water slowly wearing away large smooth boulders. But it’s not only beauty, there is so much style and taste that go into the architecture and landscape that really separates Japan from the other Asian countries.
Besides having no litter, there are literally no trash cans. “Trash” is a word that belongs to the developing world and to us in west, but in Japan all discarded items have their place; plastics, compostables, combustibles, recyclables, etc. Rubbish bins are segregated by material, and I have often had to carry around different forms of waste until finding the right place to dispose of it. In America we generally only have two bins; trash and recycling and most of the country can’t even get this right. I can’t count the amount of times in America that I have seen all sorts of materials dumped in to recycling bins.
Similar to Korea there is very little confrontation but I have found it very obvious as to what is considered “right and wrong behavior”. Since arriving I have broken the law many times (mostly at stop lights) and I often receive the look of shame. Nothing will be verbalized but you can quickly tell by the look that you are doing something that is considered wrong. It can best be described as a look that says “your parents didn’t teach you that what you are doing is wrong”. The look coupled with the fact that no one else breaks the rules has a drastic effect, and I will often now just wait for the signal to turn green.
Shopping is also an interesting experienced where one can literally enter and exit a store without paying. In grocery and large department stores the emergency exit in the rear of the store is often times another entrance with no employees or alarms to keep one from stealing. In parking lots discounted items are often displayed on large tables where items could easily vanish unnoticed. In the countryside the honor system is in full swing with unmanned fruit stands selling overly priced super fruits (extremely large apples and oranges) with yen collected in plastic jars, sometimes containing up to $100 dollars’ worth. As a boy my parents would always keep a jar full of money on the counter which was used for errands or trips to the grocery store. This seems to be very similar to how the system works over here; where trust is not an issue and there is more responsibility on the individual.
At first it was quite shocking, because I have not felt this way since leaving home. It is completely opposite western culture; where we need locked doors or policemen to stop us from breaking the law. Here everyone already knows what’s right and wrong.
So during my stay in Japan I will often have to remind myself not to be so “American” which will mean the following;
1. Don’t ride on the right side of the road (traffic drives on the left like India, Britain and France)
2. Remember all the lessons my parents taught me as a child.
Heading now towards Hiroshima, looking forward to visiting ground zero and seeing the peace memorial museum.
Touch base again soon!
Homeless in Japan
December 4, 2014
“Hello, nice to meet you, my name is Julian, I am from America” ……
My last week has been filled with a strange sense of Japanese hospitality. The weather has been terrible, with cold rain/hail storms blowing in almost everyday and subzero evenings. My tent never has the chance to dry, all day its packed in a wet bag and at night it quickly freezes when its unpacked. To avoid the weather I have slept in some very unusual places that before entering Japan I would have felt uncomfortable sleeping in. This has led many locals to believe that I am homeless and often times when I try to talk with them they will scoff at me and tell me that they don’t have any money! I guess sleeping in a parking garage and being nice does not go hand in hand in Japan. But this gives me a good opportunity to experience the “unseen” side of Japanese culture.
On several occasions, after explaining that I am not homeless but rather trying to save money by camping, I have been invited into the homes of Japanese locals. I am quickly overly complemented for my chopsticks skills and knowledge of Japanese cuisine and am almost always offered a large dinner consisting of some sort of seafood, with rice and miso. I think that most Japanese would be surprised to see how much of their culture can be experienced in other Asian countries as well as in Japanese restaurants. Not to say that there is a lot that I have learned solely from Japan but I find that many Japanese are shocked that I know what wasabi is! All three of my dinner experiences have gone pretty much the same, after a great meal, I am bid farewell and accompanied outside where I then depart and camp in the dark cold. Never have I been offered a place to stay! It’s almost as if my host feel that “well he has food in his belly he will be OK camping in the cold”. In all my experiences with invitations from strangers in foreign lands Japan is the only country where I have not been offered a place to stay. On my last occasion, after a fabulous meal of crab and green tea, I pressed my host to offer me a place to stay (probably a Japanese Taboo). It turned out that my host was a doctor at the local hospital so after a few phone calls he organized me a room in the intensive care ward! I think I would have been better in the tent, all night I could hear the sound of coughing and respirators and nurse call buttons, and I dreamt of visiting my father in similar situations.
Exploring cities on a bicycle in Japan is always a bit challenging, riding from sidewalk to busy street hopping up and down curbs, dodging schools kids racing home from class. With the berth of my bicycle I often wonder if it might be safer for me to ride in road. Hiroshima was no different, a very busy metropolis separated by 5 rivers draining into the bay. This gives the city an almost nostalgic fishing village-like feel even though the population is close to 2 million. My first day I wandered about pedaling the busy downtown shopping district and eating the local cuisine. Other than the historic atomic bomb dome (A historical monument from the war) there is very little sign of the city’s tragic past. Drunk business men in black suits smelling of fried fish and sake bar hop while skinny Japanese women in high heels walk the sidewalks with designer handbags. The nightlife is absolutely crazy, where the street lights are brighter than the sun, and cars are shuffled in a conveyor belt in the public parking lot, I quickly became overwhelmed and missed the solitude of the wild.
Visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum was extremely emotional but extremely interesting! Looking back I somehow didn’t realize the full extent of which Hiroshima and Nagasaki were affected by the atomic bomb. Both cities were completely leveled!! As I walked past monument after monument I was quickly overwhelmed with a feeling similar to that experienced when visiting Auschwitz in Poland. (I actually wonder if anyone could handle visiting both of them in the same day). Most of the artifacts throughout the museum are pieces of clothing and cherished items from the victims, and it was not hard to start crying when looking at the pictures of innocent children burned beyond recognition, or human remains where only a school backpack is visible. IT was very disturbing to learn that a few minutes before the bomb was deployed, scientific instruments attached to parachutes were dropped to measure the air pressure and radiation so that the full effect of the bomb could be understood. The thousands that lost their lives in Hiroshima were test subjects to the American Military machine.
I am now in the ancient capital city of Kyoto, I really enjoyed cycling the Shimanami hwy across the islands to Shikoku. In two weeks I will be back in America for X-mas but I am already sick of the chorales playing in the grocery store.
Last days in Japan
December 16, 2014
I found the large crowds and constant click of cameras overwhelming in the city of Kyoto. I wandered from historic Buddhist temples to ancient Shinto shrines only to be engulfed by the mass of tourists desperate for a picture of Japans preserved culture. Kyoto is the only city that has 17 UNESCO world heritage sites and I found many of them to be more like a theme park than a cultural heritage. Many of the historic temples are painted in Gold or lacquered in Silver and I often found myself wondering how a Zen Buddhist monk would practice in a temple so ostentatiously decorated surrounded by tourists waiting with cameras posed. It didn’t really matter though because there were very few practicing monks within the Kyoto’s city limits.
Fushimi Inari Taisha Jinja was probably my favorite site in the city. A traditional Japanese Shrine located at the base of a small mountain near the outskirts of the city. I arrived just before dark and walked the hour and a half loop to the top just as the sun set getting a great view of the city as the lights came on. I descended through the darkness and found the main shrine at the bottom fully illuminated in a bright orange glow. I paid my respects by bowing twice, capping twice then bowing again two times them head out into the night to look for a place to sleep. While unlocking Gaby I befriended a fellow cycle enthusiast who had just graduated from law school. He invited me to “Top Shelf” sushi, and we quickly ran up a tab close to $200 at a nearby sushi bar.
While in America I had never been much of a fan of Sashimi (raw fish), as I always found the texture to be rubbery and lacking in flavor. The price for a small order is also usually the same as 3 to 4 rolls so it is hard to justify. On my visit to the top shelf sushi bar I was told, actually pressured, to order anything so I had a whole meal of fresh blue fin tuna, salmon, shrimp and eel. Anyone who has not tried fresh Sashimi should give it a try the flavor is so much better raw than cooked. I can still remember the taste and texture of this meal!
The shortest route from Kyoto to Tokyo was through the busiest and most populated region of Japan. Even through the distance was only about 450 km it took me close to 6 days as my riding options were reduced mainly to the sidewalk. Outside of the countryside there is very little room for a cycle tourist in Japan. The streets are packed with vehicles going too fast and the sidewalks are often too narrow with traffic going too slow. If that is not enough of a barrier there are distraught school kids everywhere on bikes paying very little attention to where they are going, as well as bridges over many of the busy intersections transforming my daily ride into more of a cross fit training session.
One evening, after rush hour, I pushed myself to pedal another 16 km to the neighboring city of Hakone before setting up camp. It had been several days since I looked at the route online and little did I know that I was about to climb a 3,500 ft mountain in the dark! All of the sudden the city lights disappeared and I was pedaling on a sidewalk walk into the darkness. I tried to convince myself that I was only climbing a small hill but the road continued up and I painfully watched as the kilometers slowly went by. It had been raining all day and evening though I was sweating I could feel the temperature get colder and colder as I approached the summit. After an hour and a half, I reached the summit only to find everything in the city of Hakone closed except for a convenience store. My clothes were drenched in sweat and a street sign displayed the current temperature at -5 C. After eating two steamed meat buns I enquired the distance to the nearest town and was told that it would be another 20 km straight downhill. I was too tired and cold to attempt a descent soaking wet at -5 C so decided to look for a place to camp for the night. Much of the ground was icy, and after pedaling about shivering in the cold I came upon a public restroom that would give me shelter for the night. After a bit of investigation I found that there was a private handicapped section that had a locking door! Delighted I set up camp inside and fell asleep only to be awoken a few hours later by someone vomiting in the neighboring toilet. I didn’t sleep well but at least I didn’t freeze.
I just arrived in Tokyo after spending a few days in Kamakura. I will spend the next few days here before returning to the states for the holidays. This is my last post from Japan, east Asia was enjoyable but did not quite match my adventurous expectations after visiting the Central Asia. My dreams are filled with memories of the Middle East and I look forward to getting to more exotic lands soon! I am less than ten days away from my 31st birthday; a year ago I was on the Croatian island of Krk with Ljubinka and Nino! I hope to see you all while in America!
One last adventure
December 24, 2014
It was about an hour passed midnight, when I finally decided to leave the busy shopping district of Shibuya. I had spent close to 2 hours on the 4th floor of skyscraper drinking sake and watching the crowds of shoppers walk across one of the busiest intersections in the world. It was my last day in Japan and I had thoroughly enjoyed climbing to the top of Tokyo tower and marveling at the view, walking the gardens at Meiji Jingu shrine and meeting fishermen at the Tsukiji fish market.
I hopped on Gaby for what I thought would be a quick 15 km ride to the nearest hostel and immediately upon turning the pedals the bottom bracket, the component that holds the crankset together snapped. Gaby is too large to put in a taxi and without a box I had little choice other than to push through the busy crowds on the sidewalk. I stopped into several hotels but soon found that my cheapest option would be something between $150-200! I had little option other than pushing Gaby to the nearest park and pitching my tent for the night.
After a few hours of pushing through the busy streets I arrived at Shinjuku park, where I looked for the small community of tarp shelters I had seen during the day. An easy sight, even in the early hours of the morning, I pushed Gaby near and looked for a place to pitch my tent. I put my ground tarp down, and before I could get my tent out a homeless man, rolled out of his tarp and told me that if I wanted to camp in here I would have to pay him 1,000 yen ($10). Exhausted and very cold, I packed up my supplies and looked around for another place to sleep. I found a small space between two trees, and slept in my bag on the ground a few hours before waking up to the sunrise.
It was a big rush getting to the airport as I had to find a new bottom bracket, bicycle box and pedal 50 miles to make my flight at 2 pm. All in all it went ok and I was able to escape a hefty over weight fee on the bicycle box. I am back in So Cal and wish you all happy holidays.