Last days in Japan

Making friends in Kamakura

Making friends in Kamakura

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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.

Golden Pavilion temple Kyoto

Golden Pavilion temple Kyoto

Ginkaku-ji Kyoto

Ginkaku-ji Kyoto

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.

Shrine just after dark

Shrine just after dark

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Bamboo forest in Arashiyama Kyoto

Bamboo forest in Arashiyama Kyoto

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!

sashimi

Crossing a bridge with Mt. Fuji in the background

Crossing a bridge with Mt. Fuji in the background

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.

Sidewalks would often give way to this ramps that lead up and over bridges at busy intersections. Pushing a loaded bike up these gets tiring!

Sidewalks would often give way to this ramps that lead up and over bridges at busy intersections. Pushing a loaded bike up these gets tiring!

Vintage bicycle shop in Kyoto, Grand Bois 650b

Vintage bicycle shop in Kyoto, Grand Bois 650b

Handicap restroom hotel room on the summit of Hakone

Handicap restroom hotel room on the summit of Hakone

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.

My host and friend in Kamakura, Hatashimari  teaches me to make my favorite Japanese snack Oni Guri Rice balls

My host and friend in Kamakura, Hatashimari teaches me to make my favorite Japanese snack Oni Guri Rice balls

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Salt, filling (dried beef), seaweed and rice

Wishing well at Kiyomizu temple Kyoto

Wishing well at Kiyomizu temple Kyoto

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!

Trying to navigate the busy sidewalk and streets en-route to Tokyo

Trying to navigate the busy sidewalk and streets en-route to Tokyo, imagine trying to pedal through this chaos for 8 hours!

Courtyard at one of the many Shrines in Kyoto

Courtyard in one of the many Shrines in Kyoto

Homeless in Japan

Asian coin

This Chinese coin is a good example of Asian culture, the outside is circular and symbolizes openness, with a square, conservative, ridged core.

“Hello, nice to meet you, my name is Julian, I am from America” ……

A dry place to sleep until being forced into a typhoon.

A dry place to sleep until being forced into the rain, this was a vacant parking lot until about 9 am when all the sudden I was surrounded by Toyota’s and Hybrids

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.

Oconomi Yaki, Hiroshima specialty. Bean sprouts, Noodles, pancake, egg and bacon

Oconomi Yaki, Hiroshima specialty. Bean sprouts, Noodles, pancake, egg and bacon

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.

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The making of Matcha Japanese green tea

Japanese mocha with cultural mocha sword cutter

Japanese mocha with cultural mocha sword cutter

Macha, Japanese green tea mixed in milk

Matcha, Japanese green tea mixed in milk, you can see that my host is ready to send me to the intensive care ward.

Tricycle of little boy, buried in the aftermath of the war

Tricycle of little boy, buried in the aftermath of the war

The national bank and the atomic dome were the only structures left standing at ground zero

The national bank and the atomic dome were the only structures left standing at ground zero

Depiction of the bomb, which exploded 600 meters above the city maximizing its destructive potential

Depiction of the bomb, which exploded 600 meters above the city maximizing its destructive potential

Japanese style cycle touring

Japanese style cycle touring

These bicycles are extremely popular in Japan, its the size of a folding bike but doesn't fold

These bicycles are extremely popular in Japan,  the size of a folding bike but doesn’t fold

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.

Looking out at one of Japans most famous and oldest bridges originally built without nails

Looking out at one of Japans most famous and oldest bridges originally built without nails

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.

Cycling the Shimanami hwy, a beautiful network of bridges connecting 5 islands south of Hiroshima

Cycling the Shimanami hwy, a beautiful network of bridges connecting 5 islands south of Hiroshima

Route 372 American style café, I tried to get a burger at this place but it was close to $15! I can wait

Route 372 American style café, I tried to get a burger at this place but it was close to $15! Everything seems American until you look at the small electric car in the front parking lot

Sunset in Hiroshima

Sunset in Hiroshima

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.