So it seems I am starting another post with an apology. It’s been months since I’ve even logged onto this blog and my previous assurances that I’d be getting up to date have been exposed as the lies that they apparently were. Sorry about that.
So now I am sat in Singapore, around 4000km and nearly 5 months on from my last post in Tokyo finding myself so far into the red that catching up is going to be a mammoth task and one that if I’m honest I’m not altogether up for. So I have made a decision. I am going to upload a couple of posts from Japan that I had previously written just because it seems silly not to but then I am going to skip forward a few months to Indonesia. I’m sorry Korea, I know you in particular are getting shafted here but I just can’t face 5 months of backtracking.
For the record cycling in South Korea is pretty damn awesome and Koreans are wonderful people but if you want to know more about it then you’ll just have to ask me. Although highly unlikely, if you happen to be reading this blog and you don’t know me then a) sorry for the mediocre posts (if you want a genuinely funny read then you’ll be much more at home at https://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/?doc_id=12784 with Chris Pountey who is quite hilarious) and b) you probably won’t ever hear about me cycling in Korea, soz.
So anyway, here is the first of a couple of posts that I had ready to go for Japan and then we’ll jump into the DeLorean and swiftly make our way to Indonesia:
Having said goodbye to Helen and Adam in a rainy Ikebukuro I rode back to my hostel and packed up for my departure the following morning – Tori sets off take II! On my way back I stopped in one last time at Senso-ji temple, a place I’d visited many times before but one that is unfailingly impressive at night. With the daytime shoppers long since gone and the stalls closed or closing I enjoyed the lit up facade alone for a few moments. Or at least I tried to…
Whilst gazing up at the pagoda I was approached by a tiny (and I really mean tiny) Japanese lady who surreptitiously slipped a thin metal cutout of a Buddha into my hands and then started asking me for money. “Money for our prayers” she told me, “you must now give money for our prayers”. Having failed to clock her approach I had missed my window of opportunity to escape and so found myself stood holding a Buddha that I neither wanted nor had asked for whilst being pressurised to “pay up”.
Caught off guard and unsure as to whether the women was officially from the temple or just a lone opportunist I wasn’t bold enough to simply hand the Buddha back and walk off, instead feeling obliged to give her something. However, after locating my purse I realised that minutes before I had blown my last JPY500 on a postcard bumper pack (I have an addiction… it’s bad) and so genuinely had no money to offer. I rattled around the bottom of my bag desperately hoping to find some rouge bank notes aware that my reason for not paying-up was falling on deaf ears:
“I’m really sorry but I just had to buy that selection pack of Hokusai 36 scenes of Mt. Fuji in order to forget I have them and cart them around the country in the bottom of my panniers for the next few months until they are creased beyond all recognition. It really was a necessity”.
Eventually I dug up a grand total of JPY118 (about 70p) and tried to slyly drop the coins into her bag without her seeing how much (or more to the point how little) it was… but oh she knew! Without missing a beat she held up a clipboard and a pen and looked at me, grinning. I was now required to fill in a spreadsheet with my name, nationality and in the biggest and most prominent box of all my donated amount. I sheepishly added my name to the bottom of a long list of previous donators, all of whom of course had pledged more than me; Greg from Los Angeles was the shining star with a donation of JPY7,000! Thrusting the clipboard back into her hands I scurried back to my hostel… my postcards of guilt weighing down my backpack. I didn’t have to ask who would be the focus of that evening’s prayers… bloody Greg, he knew… there’s only so far JPY118 can take you.
So the next morning with my post cards tucked into the bottom pocket of my bag never to be seen again I was ready and raring to go and I set off towards Fuji. As with my ride into the city the week before the roads were heavily trafficked but they felt so much safer than the States and I was buzzing to be on the bike again, finally cycling around Japan. The main annoyance was the preposterous number of traffic lights (on even the most minor of junctions) which inevitably turned red on my approach. As is fairly obvious to even the most casual of observers my bike is not light, rather it’s damn heavy and getting started takes some pedal power. Every squeeze of the brakes directly negates the energy expended to build up forward motion and having to come to a halt every 200m for another set of unnecessary traffic lights is infuriating. What’s wrong with a roundabout I ask? Or, God forbid, giving people the responsibility to turn onto a main road unaided, using nothing but their common sense and innate preference for live over death!
Anyhow, annoying as they may be, with meer traffic lights as my primary complaint the roads in Tokyo were generally great! I took the smaller side streets when I could and on many occasions wonderful big cycle paths.
Having had nearly a week in a hostel it was time to get back on my cyclist budget and whip out my trusty tent. It was my first night “stealth camping” in Japan so I had dinner and waited until it got dark before setting up camp which I did on a grassy river bank near Inagi City, settling down for the night happy that I was hidden enough to remain undisturbed. It was something of a shock therefore to wake up a few hours later to music seemingly very close to my tent. I sleepily checked my watch – 12:55 – and as quietly as I could I unzipped my tent (have you ever tried to open a tent zip quietly… yeah it’s impossible huh!). Eventually I poked my head out into the dark only to find a young man practicing his double bass a meer stones throw away! I couldn’t believe it… a double bass of all instruments! He hadn’t seemed to have noticed me, or if he had he was unfazed by my presence and he worked through his pieces quite happily in the dark! It was surreal to say the least but actually quite relaxing and I drifted back to sleep rather content with my personal double bass serenade!
The next day I rose early and was on the road by 06:00, partly to get my tent down before people noticed me and partly because I had quite a way to go. Before going to sleep the night before I realised I had miscalculated my remaining kilometres to Yamanakako (one of the Fuji 5 lakes) and I now had a 100km day ahead of me instead of the 70km I had originally thought. Although I would never have imagined I’d be saying this back in January, 100km isn’t actually a particularly difficult day however when factoring in the 1000m vertical I also had to climb I knew I’d need the early start.
The ride turned out to be just as brutal as I had expected. I’d picked up a cold in Tokyo and the riding strained my lungs as well as my legs in which I could feel the loss in strength that nearly two weeks out of the saddle had bought about. The climb over the Peninsular range in California had been tiring but I had been riding solidly for nearly 3 months and I was strong. Battling my way towards Fuji I may not have been weak so to speak but I could certainly feel the effects of the break. To make things worse, the road wound it’s way up a valley, the hills rising steeply on either side essentially forming a wind tunnel along which the wind hit me head on. With around 15km still to go I was exhausted. I stopped and slumped forward over my handle bars, fighting back tears. I had passed a number of nice looking camping spots but had arranged to meet friends from Hakuba for dinner that evening so stopping short of my goal wasn’t an option. There was nothing for it, the road went up and so up I must go. Standing on the hard shoulder and crying wasn’t going to get me there any faster so I allowed myself no more than two minutes of self pity before pulling myself together and pushing off back into the road.
You’ll be pleased to hear I made it to the top of the pass without further emotional breakdown and as I finally started the short cruise downhill to the lake my efforts were rewarded with an incredible view of Mt. Fuji. There were no clouds in the sky and the world’s most perfect mountain was a gentle shade of purple, it’s outline crisp against the darkening sky. Unfortunately I was so desperate to get into town I couldn’t bring myself to stop for a photo so the image, sadly for you guys, is available for viewing only within the confines of my head!
Exhausted I had my onsen in town quickly and then met up with my lovely friend Risa and her boyfriend Luke for a delicious dinner. In somewhat unfortunate timing, just two days later Risa was due to fly to Blighty (that’s Britain for my friends across the pond) so this was our one window of opportunity to catch up.
The next morning we waved each other off after lunch and I set off looking for somewhere to camp. Seeing as I had arrived so late I wanted to spend one more night at Yamanakako to enjoy the afternoon. I found a little camping ground and got everything set up before heading out to do my laundry and have an explore once again finishing my day in the onsen I had been to the night before.
I have always been a big fan of Japanese onsen but I quickly realised that my love of soaking in a tub of hot steaming water had the potential to develop into something of an obsession. A day in the saddle never failed to leave me aching, sweaty and covered in road dust/grime and scrubbing my body from head to toe in the shower not only made me feel like a new person but look like a completely different one as my “tan” gurgled down the drain and my hair gradually unstuck itself from my head, emerging once more as the slightly crazed mop that I’ve been sporting throughout this trip. Squeaky clean and refreshed to then spend half an hour soaking in hot water was nothing short of bliss.
So it was in the outside tub in the beautiful onsen in Yamanakako that I got chatting to the wonderful Kimiko. Kimiko was in her 70s (although in true Asian style she looked a lot less) and she spoke both English and Spanish. A few years before her and her husband Shigeo had been on a world cruise and so we happily chatted about the places each of us had been. Within minutes she had invited me to stay at her house and I found myself on the receiving end of the first of what was to become numerous offers of generous hospitality in Japan. Leaving my bike at the onsen and my tent (which was already set up) at the campsite my belongings were hopelessly spread out around the lake but the temptation of a delicious dinner, friendly company for the evening and a futon for the night quickly dispelled my reservations and putting my trust in the honesty of the Japanese I grinned and jumped in the car.
Following a delicious breakfast the following morning I headed back to my campsite where I was greeted by a very confused camp owner. From his perspective I suppose it must have looked a little odd; I had arrived mid-afternoon, paid for my pitch, set up my tent and then promptly cycled off reappearing only the next morning in order to pack everything up and leave!
I was heading that day to neighbouring Kawaguchiko, only an hour or so down the road. As the main tourist hub of the fuji 5 lakes I planned on having a night camping by the water before heading north towards Hakuba the following morning. As the sun started to set I was rewarded with another lovely Fuji view (which this time I had the energy and patience to record) before enjoying my obligatory onsen and finding somewhere to camp.
Just as I was sneaking off the pathway to hide behind some tall rushes and put up my tent I spotted my first fellow bike tourer in Japan, Chris from Australia, who appeared round the corner with a big grin on his face. Being able to work with nothing more than a lap top and wifi connection Chris has managed to engineer a pretty awesome lifestyle spending a few months at home then a few months bike touring somewhere in the world. Good work my friend. We had a nice chat before he made his way to a hostel and I, with a quick glance over my shoulder, disappeared into the bushes to camp.
I was rather pleased with my camp for the evening although somewhat annoyingly I did manage to leave both my £50 reinforced lock and cable extension behind, lost somewhere in the long grass. I guess if you’re going to lose a lock, Japan’s the country in which to do it; I had never once locked my car in Hakuba and on one particularly ridiculous occasion had even left it in the middle of Kyoto with the front window wound down and my ipod on the passenger seat returning four days later to find everything where it should be! So I guess with negligible security worries the loss simply left me with a marginally lighter bag and if the hills I’d experienced already were anything to go by that could only be a good thing.
My new “light” load was put to the test immediately as I battled my way up the pass north heading towards Matsumoto. I was granted one more lovely view just before I entered a tunnel which cut through the final top section of the mountain. The next 5 minutes were, quite frankly, terrifying. The tunnel was busy, mostly with trucks and there was no pavement, only a tiny “hard shoulder” much narrower than the width of my bike. Christ it was so dangerous (sorry Mum). The faint flicker of light, literally at the end of the tunnel, gave me hope that I might make it out alive and I cycled as fast as I possible could… on a fully loaded touring bike… uphill. Every time I spotted a particularly large lorry in my mirror I pushed myself into the side of the tunnel, closed my eyes and held my breath bracing myself for the pressure wave of air to hit me as the truck screamed past. The noise was breathtaking as the engines of each and every vehicle, amplified and echoing through the tunnel, became one gut wrenching roar. I’m not exaggerating when I say that as I finally emerged into the sunlight gasping for breath I felt like I had somehow cheated death. With my hands shaking and my legs failing to hold my weight I could do nothing more than sit by the side of the road with my head between my knees, forcing myself to breath deeply until I had calmed down.
I had been expecting the tunnels to be a little hairy but those I had been through en-route to Fuji had had nice big pavements often separated from the traffic with a barrier. This had been the first that was really scary and unfortunately it was not to be the last. There was nothing I could do but take each one as it came and where possible avoid the particularly bad ones.
After such an adrenaline fuelled start to the day the rest of the ride felt a bit tame although I did have a wonderful downhill stretch of nearly 20km which put me back in a jolly mood quite quickly. I camped that evening tucked away in the bushes along the side of a river bank having made good distance. I freaked myself out a little bit just before going to sleep thinking that I could hear people snooping around outside my tent but after finally mustering the courage to peek outside I found nothing but a branch swinging across some crunchy leaves… deadly.
In the final two days riding up to Hakuba things started to feel nostalgic as I rode through areas I knew. On my way into town I started bumping into friends and eventually ringing my bell excitedly I pulled up outside Dan and Hiroka’s lovely new home. I ended up spending a couple of weeks with them catching up with everyone and drinking plenty of wine and Dan’s home brew. It was awesome. The four days ride from Tokyo may not have technically justified 2 weeks off but it was a wonderful couple of weeks none the less. I do love Hakuba.