Germany, Here We Come!

11/7/16. Monday was a quiet day, not straying far from the hotel while we finished packing and resolved the problem of getting the bikes to the airport.

The reception staff were adamant that the bike boxes were too big to take on the shuttle bus. Fair enough (perhaps – surely it depends on how many other passengers there are? We accept that there can be no guarantees of space. But to be so dogmatic?)

It got worse when we asked about taxis (large ones, of course). “They need to be booked a week in advance”. When we ashed them to phone to arrange for an hour’s time we were told they were all fully booked. For goodness sake!!!

Eventually a solution was reached whereby the shuttle bus took us to the international terminal on Monday evening (the bus normally only takes guests TO the airport in the morning and brings them FROM the airport in the evening – no exceptions!). We then left the bikes in Left Luggage overnight and will pick them up in the morning.

(Just as an aside, between 10 and 20% of the taxis hanging around the airport were large ones which could have taken the bikes comfortably! Grrrrr!)

Tasting Tokyo

9-10/7/16. On Saturday morning we were delighted to receive a message that Satoru and Asa, our friends from Kyoto (otherwise known as “the Pearson Two”), were in Tokyo for the weekend and suggested that we meet.

After a day of packing the bikes and bags while the rain fell, we headed for the main station (the one known simply as “Tokyo”) just a little apprehensive that we might not manage to find each other in such an enormous place with so many people around. We had, however, arranged to meet in a relatively small, distinctive place and it was no problem finding each other.

They were with a friend, Koji, and the five of us went off to a small, traditional restaurant in an area of eastern Tokyo where Saturo had lived previously. Just as in Kyoto, we were treated to a wonderful meal, this time with a Hokkaido (the northernmost of the large islands of Japan) influence as this was where the owner was from. It was all delicious but particular highlights were a small fish which Google translated as “under the ice fish”, pickled cucumber made by the owner and “Tokyo egg” (a very light omelette). We both felt a little “squeamish” about the inclusion of a small amount of whale meat in the plate of sashimi, although Stephen did eat a little, partly out of politeness and partly out of curiosity, (Christine had tried it many, many years ago in Norway).  The beer, sake and fruit juices flowed freely as well!

After church for Christine and more packing for Stephen on Sunday morning, we met with Asa and Satoru again so they could show us some more of this city of 13.6 million people. To start with they took us to the Tsukiji fish market for a lunch of sushi. The small restaurant could seat 14 people and there were 3 chefs preparing the food to order, a waitress and a guy out front encouraging passers by to come in – a high ratio of staff to guests. What is noticeable in all the restaurants we have been to is how much interaction there is between the guests and the staff – it is a very inclusive relationship – one of equals without the slight master/servant connotations that there is sometimes back home.

Once again the food was delicious and really “hit the spot” on a hot, sunny day. Afterwards we went to an area by Tokyo’s most famous temple where there were many people dressed in kimonos – pretty much the first time we had seen this since Kyoto – apparently due to it being a holiday weekend.

Then we were taken to Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world at 634 metres. The lifts to floor 350 (the height in metres) take about 50 seconds and reach a speed of 600 metres/second. Being a couple of cynical, world weary old codgers we were not expecting much when we stepped out of the lift.

How wrong we were! The view was simply astonishing!!

A huge, vast megacity was laid out like Toytown at our feet. Mount Fuji was visible in the distance (we later discovered it was well over 100 km away) towering above the surrounding mountains.

We took a second lift to floor 450 (yep – another 100 metres higher!) where the view was even better but the main benefit was that it was less crowded.

We would thoroughly recommend a trip up the tower although it obviously depends on the weather – we were so lucky as it was sunny and clear without being hazy.

Back on the ground it was time to say goodbye to Asa and Satoru as they were returning home by train. We do hope that we have the opportunity to repay a small part of their friendship and generosity if/when they come to the UK.

The Great Bike Box Hunt

6&7/7/16. With only 5 km between the two hotels we enjoyed a lie in – but not too late as check out was 10 o’clock. Unable to check in at the second hotel until 3 o’clock (Japanese hotels adhere to these timetables far more rigidly than in the West!) we had a few hours to “kill” which we spent wandering around a nice little garden and park in Kawasaki and then, having crossed the river, a couple of shrines and the shops in Haneda.

Thursday’s task was the vital one of obtaining two bike boxes for the flight to Germany. We were a little apprehensive about how long this would take which was why we had booked into the hotel in Haneda (very adjacent to the airport) for 6 nights.

With the sun blazing down and the temperature soaring towards 35°C we set off armed with photos of what we were looking for ready on the iPad.

We started at a bike shop we had passed the day before. The guys there spoke only a little English but the photos got our message across (we think). They shook their heads to indicate no boxes and pointed us in the direction of another shop, printing a map from the web to direct us.

Here the chap spoke more English and explained that the bikes he sold didn’t come in boxes. This didn’t sound promising! He sent us to a third shop.

This also produced a negative response and directions back to Shop Number One! Feeling increasingly downbeat we headed towards a fourth shop which we found on the internet.

And hallelujah! There was a bike box (obviously not yet empty) in the doorway! At least they do exist in Japan! There were a further two boxes (also unopened) inside the shop. The man in the shop very kindly unpacked two of the boxes and gave them to us. Sorted!!

We now faced the prospect of lugging these two boxes 3 km back to the hotel in oppressive heat. They are not heavy – just awkward to carry. At least it was not windy, because they can act a bit like a sail. First though we stopped at a convenience store to buy our benefactor a little gift to say thank you.

To Tokyo

5/7/16. Well, we survived our night of wild camping! We made sure we were up early to avoid awkward comments, but were not early enough to avoid having to take the tent down in the drizzly rain and pack it away wet.

Looking at the map the previous evening we discovered that we had made it right to the very edge of the built up area of Greater Tokyo and were about 50 km from the hotel that we had booked for the last few nights in Japan (to allow us time to sort ourselves out for the flight). The “problem” was that we were a day early – the hotel was booked for Wednesday night and today was Tuesday. Christine spotted a campsite on Google Maps close by on a sports ground by the river so, although we were a little dubious, we decided to give it a go.

It has to be said that the prospect of 50 km urban cycling through Tokyo was not particularly appealing but Christine had also seen a cycle route alongside the same river as the campsite (this time on her offline map, Maps Me, not Google) would take us most of the way.

We set off towards the river alongside a sequence of large roads. Because we were effectively crossing from one river valley to another there was a degree of climbing involved – not particularly welcome but not overly strenuous thankfully!

Once the climbing was done we were on a road that, broadly, followed a minor river leading down to the one with the cycle route. Stephen took the “executive decision” to leave the planned route beside major roads and try to navigate on more minor ones closer to the river.

Thus we can both claim credit for the lovely ride that we had from thereon when we had originally been anticipating a dreary, stop-start ride slogging through a large city.

We had more than 30 km of gentle downhill on quiet roads and cycle paths (a mixture of busy asphalted and quieter gravelled stretches) that was almost as good as the route through Seoul that we had enjoyed so much a couple of years ago (and that is a high benchmark to be measured against).

Although the views were not beautiful there was always something of interest to see. A school outing descending a steep river bank with the children armed with nets and buckets. A baseball “complex” with a game and several training sessions. A rugby practice session. A picnic for either a kindergarten or a group of mums and babies all of whom travelled by bike. Glimpses of skyscrapers in the distance.

Arriving at the indicated campsite/sports ground our doubts about the feasibility of camping there were confirmed. We could see nowhere that resembled a campsite so Stephen approached a man collecting golf balls on a driving range with the laminated sign provided by our first kindnappers several weeks earlier asking “Where is the nearest campsite?” The response was an emphatic and stern looking “No” with arms forming a cross in front of his chest.

Christine scurried onto the internet (thank heavens for the wifi router we rented!) to look for a hotel. The one which we had booked for the following night (only a few km away) was full but she found another, cheaper one in Kawasaki on the other side of the river so we headed there.

Japan Photo Pages Updated

After a long hiatus (sorry!), the pages of photos of Japan have been updated. Because there were so many, I’m afraid it has been done “quick & dirty” meaning that they are only in approximate chronological order (but will you notice?) and are generally lacking in witty captions (nothing new there then!), or, in many cases, any captions. Sorry for this.

They are the pages for general, food, temples, gardens, Kyoto and Tokyo. (Click on the name for a link to the relevant page.)

Downwards – Sort of!

4/7/16. The early morning sun promised a hot day in prospect, so we made a move as soon as we could.

After Saturday’s marathon climb we were looking forward to some prolonged downhill although the map showed some twisty roads towards the end if the day so we were a little apprehensive that there would be some climbing involved. As it turned we were right to be nervous.

The day started out well with the road being relatively quiet and having a reasonable path for large sections. In addition, it was gloriously downhill – not too steep but sufficient to require little pedalling. And all the way we were surrounded by beautiful, wooded mountains and occasional sights of Mt Fuji bathed in sunlight apart from a picturesque little “cap” of white cloud right at the very top.

After about 25 km the road joined a more major one and we were pleased to see a sign saying “Tokyo 93”. We will not be riding into the middle of the city because we are booked in a hotel near the airport at Haneda but it cheered us to think we are getting close. At this point Christine’s average speed was almost 15.5 kph – almost unheard of but in the other sense to Stephen’s recird from Saturday.

Unfortunately the road we had joined was busier, particularly with large trucks, and the path was much more sketchy so, although the scenery generally remained lovely, we saw much less of it as we had to concentrate on the traffic most of the time.

By lunchtime the temperature had soared – at one point the thermometer in Stephen’s bike computer showed 48° (full sun, not shade) but we are not sure how accurate it is – in all probability, not very!

The road got worse when, as alluded to above, it started to climb although, overall, it was heading downwards. Thankfully though a slight haze came in which just about took the edge off sun’s heat.

Eventually we came to the point where we turned off this road. Unfortunately much of the traffic seemed to have the same idea so we pleased to find a much better path beside this new road.

It was now heading towards 5 o’clock so when we saw that Paddington Bear’s Park, which we happened to be passing, had camping we decided to stop sooner than we had intended. After going through the entrance barriers we found that we faced a 2 km ride, mostly uphill of course, to reception before we could find out if they had space and what the cost was. We struggled our way there to find they had plenty if room but the cost of one night’s camping (with our own tent, don’t forget) was ¥5,900 or £44! Thanks, but no thanks.

As we headed back down to the barriers we could hear thunder rattling around the mountains and, by the time we reached the road, the storm broke. We took cover in a bus shelter but still got a little damp as the wind blew some of the rain onto us.

After about 20 minutes the storm blew itself out and we set iff again with the roads drying rapidly in the heat. By 6.15 we were still some way from the campsite we were aiming for but Stephen spotted a little park/garden with toilets. There was an area of grass that was well hidden from the road so we decided to give wild camping a go – not least because everyone we speak to or read about who has done it says that you can camp “almost anywhere” in Japan and all you get are strange looks.

So here goes!

Around Fuji

3/7/16. It was while checking directions on the way into Fuji (the city) on Friday afternoon that we caught our first sight of the mountain. It had been gloomy and cloudy all day but was starting to get a bit brighter and Christine looked up from the map – and there it was!

Jaw dropping! The conical shape. The summit poking through the clouds. So high. It dominates the skyline.

The city of Fuji was nothing to write home about. So I won’t!

The goal for Saturday night was one of a number of campsites by a couple of lakes to the north of the mountain (the city is to the south). Naively we assumed that going round to the west we would have a day with occasional ups and downs but overall pretty flat.

How wrong we were!

We just kept heading up and up. By the time we reached the highest point of the day it was past 5 o’clock and we had done just over 40 km. Stephen’s moving average was 9.1 kph. He cannot remember the last time he saw that sort of average speed over a sustained distance. We had climbed just over 1,000 metres (net) and the total descent shown was 20 metres.

Obviously it wasn’t terribly steep – 1,000 m over 40 km is an average of 2.5% – but it was just the sheer relentlessness of it combined with the uninspiring scenery. The first 30 or so km were through urban areas and, although we kept looking to our right hoping to see the mountain, the mist/fug kept it hidden from view.

At the top there was a viewpoint from which there are probably lovely views but (a) it was still misty and (b) it faced the “wrong” way – away from the mountain itself.

And then the descent started. It was wonderful. Not too steep. No tight bends. A quiet road through trees. The only drawback was that it “ruined” Stephen’s average speed – pushing it into double figures which rather spoils the story!

When we reached the main road the gloom lifted and we had our first sight of the mountain that day. And it was impressive! Towering above us, there was a wisp of cloud covering the summit and we could see a touch of snow in a couple of places. It is easy to see why the Japanese are so reverential.

It was heading towards 7 o’clock when we arrived at our destination, Lake Kawaguchiko, and started searching for the campsite that we had seen on Google Maps. It should have been easy to find being right at the end of a headland next to a bridge. We couldn’t find it for love or money!

As it was starting to get dark we decided to “bale” to a hotel and booked into a traditional ryokan close by. It has its own onsen (naturally heated bath) so we had a good soak to ease the tired legs before scoffing down the food we bought en route and falling into bed.

Sunday was a day for recovery – pill day for Christine so Stephen went for a ride on his own around the lake and another one nearby – 33 km of largely flat roads was a real antidote to the previous day’s slog fest.

Frustrations with Roads and Cycle Paths

The cycling paths and roads have been very frustrating over the last few days since Sunday. We have been cycling along the Pacific Coast. There is the Pacific Coast cycle trail along part of the coast. When it was there it was often excellent, but then it would suddenly disappear. Once we followed it along the coast and then inland a bit, as it headed away from the coast and suddenly, without sign or warning we were on normal roads. Stephen found a route back down to the coast, and after a short while we saw a sign to the trail and it restarted. Later I saw a map of the area, and it showed the 2 sections of the trail, just as we had cycled them, with no join!! The next day we were following the trail, but the sand dunes were encroaching, sometimes just a couple of inches of sand, but a couple of feet at one point. After getting on and off the bikes many times to push through the sand we gave up and descended to the road. Again all that day and the next the trail would appear and disappear at random!

In addition to that, there have been few roads in some places over the past couple of days. Yesterday there looked like 2 possible routes: 1 with a long tunnel on the small coastal road and one alongside the very busy Route 150. We opted to try route 1, as we thought the tunnel on the coast road might well not have a separate path for cyclists or pedestrians and so be dangerous. We found Route 150, and after approaching it from both sides found that cycles were forbidden as it was a dual carriageway through a tunnel. We then cycled back and up the hill to the old coast road. A new tunnel was being dug and completely blocked off and impassable. We could see the old tunnel, which looked short and as there was just a chain blocking it off went through. We then discovered why a new tunnel was being built. The entire road and hillside where the old road was had collapsed. Absolutely no way through. It looked like we would have to go miles around. There was no indication of any alternative route for pedestrians or cyclists. Then on the way back down we met 2 Singaporeans on their way up, having exactly the same problems. One of them texted a friend and was told of an alternative via looked1, and failing that Route 280. We cycled a few kilometres over to Route 1 but there were signs forbidding bikes. But then suddenly there was a sign saying cycle route to Shizuoka, where we were heading! But you only got the sign once you had found the route! This followed Route 280 until it joined the same Route 1 as we had tried before, only now it had a cycle path beside it and through the next tunnel! Then as we descended suddenly, out of nowhere was a sign for our old friend(?) the Pacific Coast Cycle trail starting half way down the road!

We thought today would be fairly straightforward, and it was till we came to a pinch point around a headland where a dual carriageway, a motorway and a rail line all run close together. We cycled along hoping for a cycle path, then suddenly there were no pedestrian or cyclists allowed signs, just fast moving traffic. We looked at our maps, it was many kilometres to an alternative road, but it looked as if there might be a much shorter footpath. We decided we would try the footpath, and even if we had to push a bit it would save a very long detour! Luckily, just as we had decided that a lady came past and with much pointing and gesticulating made clear that if we retraced our route a bit, we would find a cycle path on the other side of the dual carriageway. It was completely invisible from where we were, and despite the sign saying no cycling, there was no map or indication where the cycle route was. When we retraced our steps we managed to find a tunnel over to the other side of the dual carriageway, and there was a lovely cycle path.

We have found this to be typical of our experiences here. There seems to be very little middle ground. The cycle route is either brilliant, or not there. The roads are flat or steep and hilly. Rolling countryside does not appear to exist in Japan. At times we are finding it hard!

Drying Out

26-28/6/16. As you will have seen from earlier today, we had a bit of excitement overnight. We are fine and just about dry. Actually there was very little that got wet because our stuff was mainly in the inner tent which is protected by the groundsheet extending up the “walls” or in the panniers (which, being German, are waterproof). One item which did go for a swim was Christine’s Kindle. After not working at all initially, it now seems to be OK, albeit with the occasional hiccough.

The rain started about 9 pm last night and sounded torrential (but it always sounds loud when you are in the tent) waking us several times. Having been dreaming about roads flooding, Stephen woke at about 4 am and realised that the groundsheet was bulging around the back pads that we sleep on. Looking out into the main part of the tent we could see an inch of water. This suggested that we should move pretty damn quickly! Fortunately the rain eased off at that point and we were able to carry everything into the shelter without it getting soaked while in transit.

The rain came back and continued until early afternoon, but not as heavily as in the night. In the daylight, which is about 4.30 am at this time of year in Japan, we could see that we had sited the tent in the biggest puddle! Perhaps the rainy season was not the best time of year to come!!

Of course, all of this was after spending an extra day near Ise on Saturday because of the forecast heavy rain – which didn’t materialise, other than a few spots!

We had a very pleasant ride to the ferry at Toba on Sunday morning, managing to stay on minor roads most of the way until we reached the Ise-Shima National Park (which was where the recent G7 Summit was held – I wonder if we will vote to leave that organisation next!). The road into the park was quite busy (and hilly) but there was a footpath which we could use.

The ferry took us across the mouth of the bay to a small village called Irago where there was a large hotel with an adjacent campsite. It turned out that the campsite was only open on Saturday nights! However, after some persuasion they took pity on us and opened it especially for us – which involved turning the water in the filthy toilets back on and collecting ¥3,600 (£24 – or considerably more depending on how badly the pound is doing today) from us. It was a rip off to be honest.

The next morning the sun was shining in a cloudless sky and by 6.15 the tent was too hot for even Christine to lie in any longer so we packed quickly and got under way along the coast. For long stretches we were able to follow a “cycle road” which was mostly of excellent quality. By midday it was really hot and Christine was starting to wilt in the sun. We found a shady spot to sit which was frequented by a group of hang gliders – they must be mad throwing themselves off a cliff with only a few bits of string supporting them!

While we were eating lunch and cooling down a little, a light haze appeared which took the edge off the heat and we were able to resume. Unfortunately the cycle road soon ended and the route became more hilly for a while which slowed us down.

Eventually we reached the outskirts of Kosai where the road levelled out and, crossing a bridge came to the paddling pool – sorry, campsite – which was a very reasonable ¥820 (under £6) for a night (and included a free bath at 4 am!).

Flooded!

After a night of heavy rain, at 4 am we discovered the inner tent was floating on an inch of water. On a seemingly flat field we had managed to choose one of two “depressions”!

We have moved all of the stuff to a room adjacent to the loos but luckily most of it is dry. Will keep you posted.