Japanese cycle tour

I've been trying to write this up for a while. Jet lag in Anchorage (with the endless daylight) seems like a good opportunity to finish it. 

So even well before plans were fully made for the big fat North American adventure, 2016 was shaping up to be a pretty exciting year, with a three week cycle touring trip to Japan with Elspeth over Easter.

 Although we would love to have toured the whole distance of Japan (about twice the distance of Lands End to John O'Groats), we decided to give more time for exploring and just focus on the two northern islands, travelling from Kyoto (on the main island of Honshu) up through Matsumoto and the Japanese alps then to the coast, weaving through interesting places on the way and eventually taking the 3hr ferry ride to Hakodate (on the Island of Hokkaido) and crossing the mountains from there to fly out of Sapporo.  I think it was about 1000miles but could be very wrong - I really wasn't keeping track. For once it wasn't about the miles or the speed. 

Cherry blossom. About the best way to be welcomed to a new country.

We arrived in Kyoto just as cherry blossom season was beginning and were treated to couples dressed in Geisha and Samurai outfits, taking their photos under the trees. It was picture-postcard beautiful and seemed like everyone was happy.  We visited a monkey sanctuary but it was far more exciting when we saw them for real on our second day cycling out of Kyoto, next to Lake Biwa. Our first few days in Japan were really beautiful, packed with sunshine and friendly people.  I’m really glad we started the trip this way – even if I ended up sun-burnt down the right hand side of my body (what happens when you are constantly cycling the same direction)!  Even the ride out of Kyoto, down Philosopher's Walk was absolutely breathtaking.  

Wee monkey friend. His backside looks similar to his face.

Giant bamboos just outside kyoto

Loved how you could just wander off and leave your bike somewhere and no-one would nick it.

Cherry blossoms at one of the temples in Kyoto
Temple near Philosopher's walk
Cherry blossom. It didn't get boring.
Cyclists, like we want to be treated
One of the things that struck us right away about Japan was how respectful they were of cyclists. Cyclists don’t bother slowing down at junctions because they don’t need to – they are 100% certain that no one is going to cut them up. Everyone gives way and lorries move right out into the other lane so not to scare you. And the roads were smooth. Soooo smooth.  I can't believe there weren't more roadies, it really is a cyclist’s paradise from that perspective. The only sad thing for me is that Japan is so built up everywhere, with loads of concrete on the hillsides (because of erosion), factories and power plants everywhere. And there only three rivers in the whole country that aren’t dammed. We are so lucky with the ‘wild’ of Scotland. A luxury we don’t appreciate enough. Although perhaps it was our own fault – there were times we could have taken more minor roads but it would have added so hugely to our distance and also the hilly-ness of the ride that it didn’t always seem such a great idea.  Even with trying to avoid the hills we still spent most of the first four days climbing and the route to Matsumoto had us sitting in a café by lunchtime feeling totally dead. Cycle touring sometimes seems like the sedate version of cycling but lugging around 30kg of mountain bike, pannier racks and tent is no joke.  

Camp spot at Lake Biwa.

We struggled a bit with using real Japanese maps to navigate our way through the cities but the foreign lettering and detail meant they were pretty unhelpful and we realised pretty quickly that googlemaps was the way forward!

Our map. Sigh. Poor Elspeth lugged this hefty and useless tome round most of Japan before we finally binned it. 
One of the particularly cool things in Kyoto was the underground bike storage – even if we clearly didn’t look competent enough to be able to operate it ourselves – the attendants rushed out to offer to look after our bikes for us whilst we puzzled over the symbols and buttons. 

Underground bike parking. Just. Too. Exciting.

Yep, just for bikes.

Cherry blossom ice cream. It really was a tour of Japanese ice cream shops

Every stage of the journey had interesting sites and cities or villages – from the historic post towns to the collection of samurai houses in Kakunodate.  Matsumoto won the best café hands down. We spent a lot of time in ‘Sweet’, drinking great coffee and enjoying the sunshine. I really appreciated the friendlieness of the staff in the hostel there too. On the road to Matsumoto we met a couple who had been cycle touring for 6 years and had a quick chat to them. Other than that, real conversations were pretty limited. The Japanese people did seem to speak very good English but were really shy and often reluctant with it, probably just out of practice.

Matsumoto castle - we got there nice and early before the huge numbers of tourists

Ninja outside Matsumoto castle

Matsumoto Castle

Frogs. There is something about frogs and Matsumoto - people keep wanting to hop back to it.
Matsumoto castle.These 5 storey pagodas are built in such a way that they withstand earthquakes, which is pretty amazing, though the inside of the castle was basically just one big queue.  Even with our staunch British attitude to queuing this stretched our patience.
Wasabi, the most interesting food in Japan
The Wasabi farm just outside Matsumoto was one of the real highlights of our trip. On our way out there we stopped off at a very cool bike shop, which turned out to be owned by the former Japanese mountain bike champ. We chatted a bit about the riding at Fort William and fat bikes in Japan and then got his help getting Elspeth’s speedo up and running again to help with navigation. 

 We arrived at the farm before it was even open but as soon as it did the tour bus started turning up, spilling out Japanese tourists to taste the many weird and wonderful wasabi based products.  We had a quick look round the farm – it was pretty interesting to see how the stuff grows in water (read this here ifyou want to know more!) but we were mainly there for the Wasabi ice cream and crisps! 

Wasabi ice cream

Wasabi farm.

Wasabi. You could buy wasabi anything in the shop and the bus-loads of japanese tourists were going wild for it.

Wasabi crisps. Sugary, but make your nose run. Awesome cycling snack.
Wild camping seems to be ok in Japan but we were a bit worried about causing offence, in a society where people seem so well behaved and there are rules for everything. Before leaving the UK we’d printed out a very polite request in Kanji, to allow us to camp overnight, explaining that we wouldn’t build fires, leave rubbish or make any noise.  This seemed to work ok most of the time but a few times we were a bit uncertain whether they were really ok with us being there or if they wanted us to move elsewhere.  It was difficult to tell from the polite demeanour of the people we spoke to. 

We did camp on a mini-golf course one night. Perhaps that was pushing the boundaries a bit but it was very quiet and we were gone very early!!

View from our campsite on the second night. Think we were slap bang in the middle of the path to the shrine so we had someone singing outside our tent at 2am. Bit bizarre.

The best thing about cycle touring has to be the unlimited food, from the Okonomiyake pancakes in Kyoto to the huge bowls of noodles and Japanese curries we got along the way. We are still rubbish with chopsticks and probably eat like barbarians but I even managed a fish with bones using them. I drew the line at the poached egg in a bowl though and had to ask for advice on that one. Turns out you need to pour it on top of your rice to eat it! Always a way! The $1 sushi restaurant where you ordered your food on an overhead tablet and it whizzed down a tube at you (with alarm bells going off…) was also equally fun and baffling at the same time but I think we had it sussed by the end, with a bit of audience participation!
Amazing meal in Tokomachi. Just amazing.  I think we were there on some sort of public holiday but we never established what that was. They went to every effort to give us the full Japanese experience. Once we had ruled out eating puffer fish they gave us some sort of fresh spring fish that only comes down the river that particular week. And the chef took the trouble to write out a translation of what we were eating too.  I don't think they get a lot of visitors in Tokomachi so we were obviously a bit of a novelty.  'Yes, we understand why Japan but why are you here?'
And we really didn't get the shoe thing right either. Which would be fine, if it didn't result in our restaurant hosts having to touch our stinky, sodden, falling apart shoes....

Poached egg and bony fish with chopsticks in our hotel at Tokomachi. At 7am. Hmm.

A top lunch in a tiny backstreet restaurant. The owner gave us some sweeties to make us strong for the road ahead. This was a common occurrence - normally alongside a sharp intake of breath, hand over mouth and giggling. You're going to 'Sa-ppo-ro?'  Like we had said Hades.  

Hirosaki castle. We mainly stopped at Hirosaki because of its reputation for apple produce but it was actually a really pretty place to visit.  We didn't really understand the museum but I take it from the film that they built the castle somewhere else then moved it by train. For some reason. Another of those lost in translation moments. Anyway, Hirosaki had the best apple pie I've ever had.
We learnt a lot about Sake on our travels – mostly (it has to be admitted) from a Radio 4 food programme podcast but also from some tasting and buying.  On the one hand, we had a really beautiful sake drinking experience in Masumoto, where they over-flowed our sake tumbler into a wooden box (posing a rather awkward ‘can we/ can’t we drink it’ question – which was quickly over come by us being stingy and deciding yes – turns out this was correct!). At the other end of the scale we bought some cheap sake in a 7 11, heated it up in a kettle based waterbath in our youth hostel and drank it paired with some chocolate! Maybe it wasn’t the sake that was bizarre so much as the fact that the youth hostel was playing a goodnight message in the way that Butlins does! We also did some tasting in a shop, which was pretty interesting. Like pinot grigio but with a starchy aftertaste!

Sake and chocolate.

How to survive cycle touring in Japan
We started hanging out in 7 eleven stores early in the morning and last thing and night. And calling them ‘stores’ instead of shops, I know, I’m sorry, but American English seemed to work a bit better than UK English. We’d get our burst of free wifi to download maps and look for an onsen or campsite, some decent coffee, snacks, cash machines that worked with UK cards, bins and a proper toilet. The toilets in Japan really were something else. Even in the middle of nowhere you could find a toilet with a heated seat and an array of buttons to elicit wave sounds or birds tweeting to cover all unwanted toilet noises, as well as jets of water in all directions… Toilets quite often had instructions posted on the walls, which was pretty funny for me but clearly an issue and probably the inspiration for the owner of a café in Tokamachi following me into the traditional Japanese toilet to give me a demo of how I should stand. 

 In case you are wondering why rubbish bins are a highlight of the 7 11s, it’s because they don’t have many bins in Japan at all. If you are wild camping, you’ll be trailing your wee bag of rubbish round with you for hours til you find a shop to deposit it in. They just don’t do bins. But what they do do, is overpackage every biscuit, sweetie or anything else you want to eat. Then put it in a plastic bag. I think they were somewhat confused to find us enthusiastically brandishing our own plastic bags at them at the checkout.

Favourite breakfast - melon bread.

We ate a lot of food in this beautiful cafe in Akita, a bit of a boring city on the northern coast of Honshu. A great way to spend a rainy rest day!
Some of the best cycling was through apple orchards. No blossom up in the north of Honshu (a bit too chilly) but we did manage to camp in what was basically an apple theme park and tourist attraction. It had been getting progressively colder on our journey north (a great reason to take advantage of early-evening Onsens / public baths to heat us up before camping).  Waking up in the apple-appreciation park, we were pleasantly surprised to find it was a bit warmer than the night before. Then we realised this was due to a nice insulating layer of snow round the tent. 

Snowy apple orchard. A bit of a surprise. (Elspeth's photo)

The next few hours were a bit of a trial, cycling into Aomori through Monday morning rush hour in freezing slush.  However everything improved when a driver pulled over up ahead, got out and presented us with an orange. I have no idea what I said but what a beautiful gesture and a nice bit of sunshine on a miserable day.

The ferry from Aomori to Hakodate was a pretty bizarre experience. It felt like we were the only people on it . People drive the lorries on and go back to Honshu, then new drivers come on to pick them up on Hokkaido. So it was mostly just us and the vending machines – such high levels of trust that we could use the microwaves and make our own noodles!! I took advantage of all the space to hang my wet socks out to dry! 

The lego version of Hakodate. They loved their bullet trains out there.

Hakodate itself was a pretty cool port town with plenty of history and interesting buildings to explore. Sadly the high winds meant we couldn’t take the cable car up but we enjoyed exploring the shops. This was the first Japanese town to be opened up to foreigners so had a much more multi-cultural feeling about the architecture, and lots of embassy buildings and suchlike. 
We had a bit of a rest indoors at a cool hostel, before setting off on the final three days through Hokkaido towards Sapporo. Although we agonised a bit about the route (worrying about snow in the mountains and the risk of being far from train lines and help) we eventually decided to just go the   quickest way, past lots of coastal villages (with the coastal defences acting as a constant reminder of the threat of tsunamis) and then up into the mountains, past several ski resorts and passing lots of mountains that looked like volcanoes.

I believe there are bears in Hokkaido.

Despite our fears, we were lucky with the weather on Hokkaido and it only turned nasty as we started our final descent.  As any cyclist knows, descending 20km into the rain isn’t actually any fun at all and we were both freezing and desperate to get it over with.  We agreed that we’d stop at the first hotel so we screeched to a halt as soon as we saw one. So grateful. But then came the sickening realisation that this place might actually be pretty pricey. Well-dressed doormen rushed to offer their assistance – ready to ‘valet-park’ our bikes for us, offering us fluffy white towels and a hot cup of tea, whilst we dripped dirty water over their marbled white floors, asking repeatedly how much this was all going to cost.

Do you want a Japanese room or Western?
How much is it?
Do you want breakfast?
How much is it?
Just tell us how much!!

I think they don’t like to talk about money directly.  But the giant aquarium and ornate lobby were ringing all sorts of alarm bells and I was trying to quickly do some sums and set myself some parameters in Yen – would 500 yen be ok, 5000, 50000? What is that in pounds…? Always important to know what you are expecting before you agree to it! By some miracle, accommodation, with luxury onsen, free tea, sweeties and the biggest breakfast ever, was a mere £40. We nearly cried with relief. The idea of having to put our wet things back on and go out to look for cheaper accommodation would have been too much. 

Terribly expensive looking hotel lobby. Note the giant aquarium.
Sake vending machine behind saloon doors.
Snowy mountains everywhere in Sapporo.

Very relieved and grateful, we took full advantage of the facilities for the next 16hr, before setting off for the final leg of the journey towards Sapporo, stopping off at a cultural centre on the way. About 10km before the end, Elspeth decided it was worth pointing out that my rear tyre was about to explode and I had a broken spoke.  The Japanese tend to cycle on pavements a lot and all the bumping up and down with heavy pannier racks had obviously done for it. I was super careful not to hit any more potholes and felt very lucky to make it to our destination.
The end of the journey - our beautiful wood-crafted hostel in Sapporo

We finished our journey in Sapporo – I think about 600 miles, though it was never about the distance.  We stayed in a really cool hostel, where the owner was a climbing / snowboarding guide and had carved the huge wooden bar and grizzly bear door handles himself.  This felt like a really nice place to end up and we enjoyed our evenings in the hostel. Sapporo itself was ok – whole entire streets ran underground to shield shoppers from the icy winds. It was a bit crazy being back in a big city, with all the lights and people and traffic but we enjoyed visiting the winter sports museum and trying out all the simulators (especially the ski-jump). 

Elspeth's photo of me attempting to do the speed skating simulator. She also took a video. No way is that going anywhere near the web.

Unfortunately, the main thing I remember about Sapporo is the frustration of trying to find a way of getting our bikes to the airport.  Clearly you have to organise these things in advance through a courier company, rather than just assuming a taxi can put their seats down.  When trying to get our bike boxes back from the shop to the hostel, we resorted to Elspeth hiding round the corner with the boxes, whilst I flagged down a taxi, then she would jump out and we'd start ramming the boxes into the car. This tactic necessitated 4 attempts before it was successful and even then poor Elspeth was left alone in the gale with a box, uncertain of whether the driver was going to come back for a second trip. We realised then that getting to the airport could be slightly more challenging than we'd imagined.  It all got a bit stressful and more than a bit expensive so we were very glad when eventually our chauffeur-driven minibus deposited us at the airport the next morning and we were allowed onto the flight!  

We’d not been looking forward to our 12 hour layover in Seoul airport on the way home but this turned out to be a lot of fun. The airport offer free city tours so we got out to see the market. 

Elspeth dressed up in traditional Korean outfit
Visit to Incheon Market - queues out the door for their KFC equivalent
Loved seeing the market at Incheon
Our Korean guide was very proud of the cherry blossoms there too! 
Temple in Incheon - part of our free city tour
Incheon city tour

Then we came back in to some amazing indoor gardens, great food and the opportunities to try out local crafts. Ok, maybe this one was meant for kids but me and Elspeth had great fun slapping the glue all over the place. Free (luxury) showers, an art gallery and a massage meant that time really did fly and soon we were back on the plane to return to Scotland, our Japanese adventure over.  
Totally not just meant to keep kids occupied at airport
My beautiful gluey creation
I’d ordered a Japanese cookbook off Amazon on the journey home but I think Isobel, David and Maureen will testify to the fact that the Okonomiyake was not my finest culinary moment. Ah well, we’ll need to get back to Japan one day!

Some more random snaps: 

Shinto shrine
This is so beautiful and I can't even remember where it was. We passed a lot of beautiful temples and gardens in Japan.

Loads of snow at the side of the road. This mountain cycling day in Northern Honshu was absolutely stunning.
This one is a shinto shrine, rather than a buddhist temple


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