The Longest Day: Arriving in Asia

Good things come in trilogies. From the writers of 36 hours in Spain and 24 extreme hours in New Zealand comes (we’re not sure how many hours in) The Longest Day Ever.
26th January, 2017

00:00 (New Zealand time) Approaching Gold Coast, after a short flight which included a curry and an episode of Silent Witness. Decide Air Asia is a step up from RyanAir.
00:00 (Queensland time) Back in the air, we have just been served another curry. Unsure as to whether this is the first meal of Thursday or the 6th of Wednesday (Breakfast, 2nd Breakfast, Lunch, Airport pack-up, Curry 1. Should I have included the pre airport sushi snack)? Identify this meal as the equivalent of to going to Mughals on the way home from Echos (sic). 
02:30 (Malaysia time) Cabin lights come on after a few hours sleep. We will be landing at 03:40, an hour early. Maybe it is like RyanAir. We feel robbed of an hour’s sleep.
03:45 Start walking. 
04:00 It is an extremely long way to get to passport control. People are irritatingly standing still on the travelators.

This fun wall display broke up the trek to the terminal

04:10 We both have stamps in our passports. Jo also had a green sticker, I do not. Not sure who to ask about this. Carry on to baggage reclaim. 
04:30 Waiting for bags and bikes. Worrying about the bikes as we saw the boxes heading out to the plane in the rain at Auckland airport. Soggy cardboard is not strong.
04:45 Bags and bikes collected, customs completed. The boxes only have a couple of small tears.
05:00 Order breakfast at airport cafe. Enjoy hot drinks. Jo has French toast.

Good morning Kuala Lumpur

05:30 I embark on SIM buying mission. There is a dizzying array of otions. Shop sets phone up for me but I realise afterwards I have no idea which of the numbers on the card is my new phone number. Probably won’t need to give it to anyone anyway.
06:00 Sit quietly, tired. Google the green passport sticker. Seems it varies whether you get one or not.
06:30 Jo buys bus tickets. Lady at counter looks at our bike boxes and says “first you buy tickets, then you ask driver.” Seems the wrong way around…
07:15 Bus is late. We look around at signs to learn some Malaysian words. 
07:30 Bus arrives and clearly does not have big enough luggage areas. After some walking around the bus inspecting them we mime sliding the boxes into the space above the baggage vestibules. This works.
08:30 Wake up to see downtown Kuala Lumpur.
08:45 Bus stops at the main station. We have a ticket to the Hilton. (We are not staying there, but the location helped with our other tasks). It appears that we transfer to a minibus for this journey. The bike boxes are a problem.
09:00 Minibus loaded with us, bike boxes and one other passenger. We let him have the front seat. To fit the bike boxes in we had to push them over the top of the seats from the back of the bus, and then shove them down towards the footwells. Seats taken up by bikes on the bus: 6. Seats available for people inc. driver: 4.


09:15 There is a lot of traffic in Kuala Lumpur.
09:30 We arrive at the Hilton. Jo begins to execute Plan A and makes friends with Vejay, the bellhop. We wanted to leave our boxed bikes and bags in the luggage room whilst we completed our KL tasks. We didn’t have a plan B, so it’s lucky that plan A worked, and within a few minutes our stuff was safely stored. We even had a receipt. I’m not sure whether I should reveal this secret, but should you be in a sticky situation like that it is always best to go to a posh hotel. This might seem like backward logic, but in our experience they are the most likely to help you, smile about it and usually have no process to charge you for simple services that would be free to their guests. Worth considering the individual members of staff though: we tipped Vejay when we collected our belongings later. Paris was not so lucky.
09:45 Bakery donut snack.
10:00 Arrive at a very tall office building. Realise we have no idea what floor the Chinese Visa Centre is on. Gamble and get in a lift with lots of other people. Get out where most of them get out. Wrong floor. Google it. We are two out. Wait ages for lift.
10:05 At the Chinese Visa Center, trying to smile just the right amount on the passport photos. “You can smile, but no teeth.” Jo is told.

Worryingly these are better than our actual passport photos

10:10 Collect number and sit in waiting area. It doesn’t seem that busy, which doesn’t tally with the fact that there were no appointments left to book. Maybe there’s a secret area we can’t see.
10:15 Nope, it’s just quiet today and we get called to a window to discuss our application. We do not have flights book so are very enthusiastic about trains. The interviewer says we may be called for interview. She asks for our Malaysian contact number. Hmmm. I give her the stuff from the phone shop and she identifies the number. If we don’t get a call, we pick our passports up in 8 days time, either with a visa or without. It’ll be a surprise on the day.
10:40 Find a supermarket and get a selection of baked goods and some apples. 
11:00 Arrive at medical centre in mall which also houses Gucci etc. Strange. Request vaccinations. It is busy. Get a number and sit in waiting area.
11:15 Get vaccines and malaria tablet prescriptions. Keep the same number and wait to pay. It is a bargain compared to what we would have paid to have the same in the USA.
11:45 Reclaim our bikes etc from the Hilton. Staff help us to take our stuff to the car park underneath the adjoining mall which we have identified as a good place to build the bikes. 
12:45 Other than being extremely hot, it is a good place. No one even looks twice at the strange sweaty women covered in bike grease with large cardboard boxes. Pumping the tyres up is tiring. Jo hits her head on an AC unit. A few minutes later I cut my shoulder on the same thing. Lack of sleep is making it extremely difficult to get the tiny pannier rack screws in the right place. 

Bike building in the car park

13:00 Jo goes for a walk to find a skip for the boxes etc. We reckon this is likely as there is a supermarket here.
13:05 I wonder where Jo is.
13:10 Consider that she is lost, and hope she has enough sense to go back to the front of the building and retrace our journey from the Hilton foyer. 
13:15 Jo returns. She had gone to exactly where we were, but one floor below. She had found a skip and also walked down enough staircases to find a flooded floor at the bottom with no cars.
13:30 A kind truck driver takes the boxes. We ride out and put the rest of the packaging into the skip. A security guard looks confused. We wave goodbye to Vejay. We ride across the city, past the Petronas Towers. Traffic is quite crazy and there are motorbikes weaving everywhere. Nobody else is cycling around.

Chinese New Year lanterns and the twin towers. No sign of Catherine ZJ or Sean.

14.00 Stop at food stall for some sort of vegetable fritter and another donut. 
14:15 There appears to a bridge between us and the train station we need with a lot of steps. The lift is too small for a bike. We obviously look unsure of what to do. A friendly lady stops to help us and suggests an alternative bridge with fewer steps. From our position it looks to have slopes.
14:20 There are not fewer steps. We are too tired for this. The bikes are heavy.
14:25 Stairs go down, then immediately up again. This is completely unnecessary.
14:30 Around a hidden corner, there’s 20 more upward steps. We are extremely sweaty.

Would we like some fried stuff? Yes please.

14:45 Get train tickets, fortunately there is a lift to the platform.
15:25 Train arrives late, no clear signs about where to put bikes, so we just choose a carriage with a lot of space and stand in the doorway (the only place we will fit).
15:30 The second stop is KL Sentral. People squeeze in around us. Suddenly there is no space. We stand in the way surrounded by surprised looking commuters, totally blocking one of the carriage doors. Imagine two idiots with fully loaded bicycles on a rush hour tube train. Our bikes are going to be a problem if the platform is on the other side to this one.
15:35 The platform is on the other side. People politely squeeze past. A lady gives us an informative leaflet in English about live organ harvesting in China. If true, it is horrifying. She obviously feels very strongly about this as she has literature in another language which she hands out to some young women. They also look horrified. She urges us all to visit a website with a petition. 
15:50 All the platforms are on the side we are pretty much blocking. At one station I have to get off completely to let people off, hoping not to be seen and told to leave the train by staff. Our plan if challenged is to act like dumb foreigners, which won’t involve any acting because that’s what we are right now. We chat to a few people about why we are on the train with ridiculous bikes.
16:15 The train begins to empty out. 
16:30 We disembark. It is raining, so stay undercover at the station. Message from Pete, a university friend we will be staying with, “this is only light rain for Malaysia.”
16:40 Pete is right, suddenly it is much heavier and there’s lightning. Jo lays down and closes her eyes.
16:55 Most of the rain is past, so we start cycling. There is a good shoulder, traffic passes us with space and there are lots of crazy tropical plants around. Lightening strikes in the distance. A mental note is made not to ride at this time of day.
17:20 We reach Pete’s school, and get a motorbike escort to the main school building.
17:25 Our security guard leaves us, and the bursar kindly guides us to the right place on his push bike.

Unescorted; motorcycle; push bike

17:30 We have made it! Two flights, two curries, two buses, one visa application, two vaccinations, several other snacks, one train journey and some cycling. Time for a shower and an evening of lovely company and Chinese food courtesy of Pete and Ghill. 

An extra four wheels

To get back to Auckland in time to celebrate Christmas with our NZ famil-Lee we had to find an alternative to cycling. Flying was an unattractive prospect and buses are still not on a full schedule after the Kaikoura earthquake so we investigated how an extra four wheels might help us. Most people who rent cars and campervans here pick up in Auckland and drive somewhere in the South Island to fly home. So luckily for us, rental companies need these vehicles driving back up north and offer nice perks to counteract the fact that they need them back as quickly as possible. We managed to book a small self-contained camper for free, as long as we took no more than four days to get from Christchurch to Auckland (1300kms). All we had to pay for was one passenger on the ferry, and the petrol. Deal.

First of all we had a day to look around Christchurch. The city is still in recovery after the major 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people and destroyed most of the CBD. Since the last time we were here (2012) it looked like the city is progressing well – piles of rubble have been cleared, empty lots have been tidied up and there are a number of new flash buildings. In 2012 the re:start shopping mall in bright shipping containers just had a handful of shops; now it is a thriving shopping space with cafes, street performers and food. It was very busy. We liked Christchurch a lot. It seems like there is plenty going on, the regeneration is an exciting time, it’s a manageable sized city and there’s even decent cycling infrastructure.

Clockwise from top left: Big chairs in the CBS; 185 white chairs, one for every life lost in the 2011 earthquake; re:start shipping container mall; damaged cathedral; interior of the new temporary “cardboard cathedral”

But we had Christmas in Auckland to get to. After not driving for well over a year we were a little apprehensive about getting behind the steering wheel. How would it feel to be travelling so fast? We had other things to think about too. How much does petrol cost these days? How often will we need to fill up? What’s the speed limit? Where will we park? How close can we get with the car? All things we haven’t had to consider in a long while. Especially not the speed limit.

Kitchen; bedroom/bike storage

The camper itself was well thought out, with a small kitchen area at the back and a fold up bed/table in the main area. It came with everything you might need – all cooking stuff, real mugs, chairs and table to sit outside, gps, chargers, there was even the luxury of huge pillows and a duvet. Debs was excited to find a coffee plunger; I was more excited about a plug in tourist gps radio (that turned out to be dull). After listening to our iPod through its own speakers for months we could plug it in to the car stereo. We even had two big fluffy towels each. Not that we planned on showering, but nice to have them just in case. It also had a porta potty and a way to store waste so we had that all important “self-contained” sticker on the back. These are highly sought after as new freedom camping rules means that there are loads of designated free camping sites, but only if you have the magic sticker (so you won’t go in the bushes in the night). We were now one of those people who we were jealous of when looking for a free spot to pitch our tent and finding “self-contained only” signs. Life was good. It was luxurious even.

Squeezing the bikes in around all of these luxury items was a bit tricky but by taking the front wheels off they stood between the bed and the front seats. Driving out of Christchurch was easy, it’s hardly a big city, and we had the pleasure of going to a supermarket knowing we could buy what we needed for the next few days all in one go. No need to worry about the weight. We bought an extra couple of tins of beans ‘just in case’. There was even a cool box so we could have real milk in our tea rather than powdered. These are the type of things we can usually only dream of.

As the road through Kaikoura (the shortest way to ferry to the north island) is closed following a landslide after the most recent earthquake, we had a seven hour drive ahead of us to get to Picton. Excitedly we hit the open road, marvelling at how fast we were travelling, how we couldn’t even tell the road was going up (we had a pass to get over), and having nothing much to think about other than which album to have on next. The novelty lasted a couple of hours. That was all it took to realise how much we loved cycling.

It was boring, particularly being the passenger. I think I fell asleep for a while. (While Debs was driving of course.) Everything went by so fast, it was hypnotising. On the bike you can stop and take a picture whenever you like. In the van it was more “that’s a good view can we… oh it’s passed now. Never mind”. We were up the pass and over the other side in no time, and I felt like we hadn’t really had time to look properly at the scenery. Both of us had to really concentrate when driving to make sure we didn’t gaze around, something you do without thinking on the bike. It was uncomfortable sitting still in the same place for so long, and there weren’t many places to stop and stretch your legs. But mostly we felt lazy. We had become so accustomed to the feeling of satisfaction gained from making distance purely through physical activity. It was strange because we expected to enjoy being able to travel so effortlessly, but it just felt wrong somehow. It also meant we couldn’t stop and eat every ten minutes like we usually do. That’s not to say we weren’t pleased to be in the van when it rained for the last few hours to Picton.

Driving up towards Lewis Pass

It was pretty late when we arrived at a good free camp spot by the beach. Dreams of just being able to park up, get in the back and go to sleep within the space of a few minutes didn’t quite work out as we first had to manoeuvre the bikes out and lock them outside, but it was still a much faster process than tenting. We woke to an amazing sunrise over the river and cooked up a porridge breakfast that we could sit on chairs with backs to eat. Whilst the actual travelling wasn’t as fun, the process of camping was made a lot easier with the van.

A three hour scenic ferry ride got us to the North Island and we had another mammoth drive to make sure we could meet up with friends from the UK the next day.

Ferry ride across the Cook Straits

That night we slept by the side of the Desert Road at its highest point (over 1000m) on the edge of Tongariro National Park, in the shadow of Mt Ruapehu. Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom to LOTR fans) was also in view. Cooking rice and tuna as the sun set behind the mountains was pretty special, even if we hadn’t pedalled ourselves there. The next morning the sky was clear and the views even better. It was pretty cold up at that height so we welcomed the duvet.

Sunset over Mt Ruapehu
Sunrise at Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom on Lord of the Rings)
Not a bad view to wake up to (and look at from a chair with a back)

After a second breakfast on the shore of Lake Taupo we drive round to Huka Falls to meet friends for a walk and a soak in the natural hot pools. After not seeing anyone from home since April this was amazing!

Huka Falls
Soaking in the natural spa pools

Time went too fast and we had to hit the road again. Searching for our first west coast sunset in New Zealand we drove north via Raglan, a west coast surf town with some great beaches. The sun set over the sea, we again cooked with an amazing view and the next morning we even had time for a couple of hours on the beach before dropping the van off and getting back on the bikes. A ride, train, ferry and final ride got us back to the North Shore.

Sunset over the Raglan surf beaches
Dinner
Morning beach walk, Raglan

Overall it was a fun way to do the journey we had to do in the time available. Much better than flying. Being able to camp anywhere was nice, and we had three great camp spots. But as a way to travel, cycling still wins. By far. On a bike you experience everything that is around you, so intensely. The weather, the temperature, the wind, sounds, animals, traffic, road surface, you feel every little thing. Being in a vehicle neutralises this. It could be boiling hot or freezing cold outside – we were a constant temperature. The road could go up or down – it felt the same to us. The wind could be roaring, the trees blowing or the streams gushing – all we could hear was the engine and the stereo. We just felt so detached from the environment we were travelling through. Want an adventure? Get a bike! [disclaimer: it is very tiring cycling everywhere.]
Thanks to Gen & Nick (again); Viv & George (again); Hels & Gaby for the English company.

The 4 rivers cycle route in Korea (we only saw 2…)

As with Japan, we never planned to go to Korea. Until we read that there is an amazing network of mostly off-road, paved cycle routes that cross costs and one of these runs almost the length of the country from Busan in the south, where the ferry from Japan arrives, and Seoul in the north, from where we could fly to New Zealand. Sold. We were going to Korea. The morning we left Japan our AirBnB host had some words of advice. As with most conversations we had in Japan, he talked into his phone in Japanese and showed us the English translation. “Don’t cross the border by mistake”. We laughed. He laughed too. Then he repeated it. Even without his advice, we were pretty sure we’d be staying firmly in South Korea. As soon as we got on the ferry we realised how quiet Japan had been. The ferry, full of Koreans, was loud, and people were shouting and bustling about in a way that was not very Japanese. We found our cabin, which contained 12 cubby holes with futons and a blanket. Half of our roomies were asleep already. We realised Koreans were using plug adaptors for their phones. Hmm so we would have to buy adaptors before we could charge anything in Korea. We realised we didn’t really know much about the country we were about to arrive in. A quick google had search told us that Koreans drive on the right (Japan is left). Good to know.


It was dark when we arrived in Busan. The port area was impressive, and the ferry terminal itself very like Japan, right down to the fancy toilets and the 7/11. As we were foot passengers we had to walk the loaded bikes a long way, and for the first and maybe last time, took them on a moving sidewalk. Stepping outside however was quite the culture shock. We had a 15km ride to our warm showers host, and this was not fun. No bike lanes but only big, fast roads. We stuck to the pavement but it was slow going around all the pedestrians and people selling fruit off the floor. There was a lot of litter and a grubby feel to the city. Korea was different. Our route took us alongside a beach – one thing Busan is famous for is nice beaches – and the waterfront area was full of people having a Saturday evening stroll. It was the 5th November and there were fireworks. We never worked out if this was in honour of Mr Fawkes or just another Saturday night in Busan.


The next nine days were spent cycling the 650 kilometres between Busan and Seoul on the 4 rivers cycle route. It is quite an amazing piece of cycling infrastructure – paved, mostly off-road, mostly well-maintained, loads of facilities on the route (toilets, tool stations, shelters etc). And, as you would imagine when following rivers, mostly flat. Until it isn’t, and then it’s crazy steep. Every now and then the flat path moves away from the river, takes you up a short steep hill (usually 12-20% grade), and then you plummet back down the other side back to the river. There’s a 100km stretch in the middle when you leave one river and climb over a pass to get to the next river but that was nowhere near as strenuous as the short sharp bits.

Mostly great cycling infrastructure….

There are bike bridges, bike tunnels, and even on the road, separate bike lanes. And there are regular ‘certification stations’ in old phone boxes where you can stamp each location on your cycling passport (or if like me you didn’t get a cycling passport, a piece of paper). So all you need to do to get from one end of the country to the other by bike is follow the arrows.

….but not always.

We did wonder if this would get a bit boring, and to be honest the first couple of days were a bit drab – Busan was ugly and went on for ages, and even beyond the city, it was all quite built up. As with Japan, Korea doesn’t seem to do visually appealing cities. So the view was often ugly grey high rise towers and industrial buildings. But this petered out eventually and after those first couple of days the scenery picked up, the sun came out, and life was all good. Riding on a bike route for all that time didn’t lose its novelty at all. Being away from the traffic was great. And autumn was in full swing, so the colours were spectacular.


Autumn also brought us a return to cold camping, last year at this time we were having some chilly nights in the tent in Europe, and Korea beat that. Our third night was the coldest, as we woke up to find everything covered with a thick layer of frost, including the bike computers. After de-icing it we could read that it said -6 (Celsius). Brrr. A great excuse to eat chocolate in your sleeping bag though.



The next couple of nights we escaped into motels. This included a motel with bike lockers on the ground floor, and our first love motel experience. After hearing about these ‘by the hour’ motels in Japan we were expecting seedy and run down, but this was modern, clean and excellent for the cyclist. Loads of space, a big bed, nicely decorated, a desktop computer, a huge bath, free toiletries, a personal garage to store the bikes…. (which was also useful for cooking dinner on the trangia). Everything is a bit secretive in that it is designed for you to drive in, park in a garage, take a private entrance to a room, check in automatically and pay by credit card without being seen by another human being. For us it was a perfect and fairly cheap way to get a good warm sleep.


Camping was easy as there are lots of parks and shelters just off the bike path and nobody seems to care about foreigners just pitching up anywhere. So after two nights of motel luxury we returned to the tent, and a couple of nights later realised that we were not that crazy camping in the cold after all. It was a Saturday night and we came across a camping area on an island in the middle of the river. It was packed. There must have been at least 80 other tents – families, young couples, groups – in November. In Europe you would struggle to find an open campsite, never mind anyone brave enough to camp. There were a few gas heaters visible, but as it was a walk-in campground, not many luxuries. Other than an ability to camp in all weathers, the other thing we learnt about Korean campers was their ability to maximise a weekend away camping. On our first night we pitched our tent at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon at a fairly full campground just outside Busan. An hour later we were cooking dinner and realised a few people were packing up, including our neighbours who were in the middle of a full on BBQ when we arrived. By 6pm it was dark, and more people were packing up. We woke up the next morning to two other tents left. If you go camping for the weekend with some Koreans, don’t expect to be home until late on Sunday night. And take an extra jumper.


We only really left the bike route to find food. This in itself was quite an experience. Somehow we only managed to end up in places where there were no pictures on the menu, just Korean. The first time we managed to order the only thing we knew how to say, bibimbap (fried rice and veg), with success. At the next place, when we were asked what we wanted to order we just shrugged our shoulders and smiled. This didn’t result in an order being taken, so I mimed that I’d like to look in the kitchen, after being shown a couple of huge pots of broth and meat I picked one and pointed at some rice too. We were a bit concerned when the first thing that arrived was a plate with tongs and a pair of scissors on it but luckily this was shortly followed by a bowl of seolleongtang (oxbone soup) and a demonstration of cutting the meat off the bone with the scissors provided. And many other small bowls of food including the tiniest fish I have ever seen and the usual kimchi (fermented cabbage in a spicy sauce). As we were finishing off the soup we were brought a tray of spicy meat. It seemed that the only foreigners in town should also try bulgogi (grilled marinated meat), with more demonstrations of how to eat it (take a lettuce leaf, put in a bit of meat, some sauce and a bit of rice, in the middle, wrap it up and shove it in your mouth). It was a bit spicy for me so I put a bit of extra rice in and was promptly told off with a good strong strike to the arm. It was lots of fun.


Continuing some themes from Japan, we saw more model people and bad English translations. In contrast to Japan, the vast majority of other cyclists we saw were recreational, usually on flashy road or mountain bikes. People didn’t seem to ride functionally (at least not in November, maybe they are all busy camping). We enjoyed that the bike path cycling outfit consists of covering as much skin as possible. As it got colder we realised the sense in this, and adjusted our clothing accordingly.

Cycle trail buddies. The tall guy in the middle is a famous Korean actor. He has 1.8 million instagram followers, so he must be famous.


The bike path was fairly well used, particularly considering the temperatures, and as we approached Seoul on a Sunday afternoon we were weaving in and out of families, racers, and tourists taking selfies or falling off. Before we knew it we were in Seoul. It looked to be a cool city to explore but as we spent our whole day there hunting for bike boxes ready to pack the bikes for the flight, we only explored the bike shop scene. And became well versed in the subway system. This usually simple task was actually very difficult in Seoul as shops have limited space so don’t keep empty boxes longer than a few minutes. We must have visited 20 bike shops, split up at one point to cover different parts of the city, and ended up with 5 boxes, only one of which was full size. Our last night in Korea was spent eating a huge meal at the market for the equivalent of £2.50 and then dismantling our bikes in the narrow hostel corridor. Cycle touring isn’t all glamour.

Korea was fun. Being off the road was great, and the scenery on the whole was pretty nice (if not wow). Ten days was maybe long enough for us on the bike route, but there are attractions you could divert to if you wanted to spend longer in the country. Sticking to a cycle path gave us a certain perspective of Korea – spend more time in towns and cities and I’m sure it would be different. We highly recommend the 4 rivers cycle route, certainly if done in conjunction with a trip to Japan. Though we are not sure where the other two rivers went as we definitely only cycled along two.


Next stop New Zealand!

Thanks to Chris in Busan; and Jess and Tim for the (fake) chocolate digestives.

Did the earth move for you? Kyoto and Kurama

Kyoto is the former capital of Japan and is famous for an abundance of intact original shrines and temples (many elsewhere were bombed in WWII/destroyed in fires/earthquakes and so are modern reconstructions). We visited a few of the more popular ones, but they are always so busy, and there is really no need to do any special detours to see shrines and temples in Japan. We would ride past so many out on the road, often small ones tucked away up hills or between houses, and these were more enjoyable to visit as they were actually quite peaceful. But when in Rome and all that…. we walked around Higashi-ji (biggest), Kinkaku-ji (gold-est) and To-ji (tall-est) temples, Fushimi shrine (most orange gates) and a few others that we happened to pass by. I think we also went to a red one, it’s hard to keep track. Amongst all of this history, the station building shows the other side of the city – a modern glass structure that entertained us with a huge staircase that lit up with animated pictures.

Kinkaju-ji temple
Old and new Kyoto

Another reason for visiting Kyoto was to do a talk to a group of Japanese university students. We spoke to a class studying basic level English and had plenty of questions fired at us about cost, best places, food etc. Our two favourite questions were probably “how close have you come to death?” and for the first time on this trip “where are your husbands?” Quite different to the primary school kids.

The orange gates of Fushimi shrine

One afternoon in Kyoto I was in the Starbucks queue (getting water, we are still not going to big chain places) and suddenly everyone’s phone had a message alert at the same time. It was like something from a film, they all made the same sound, and everyone took their phone out and looked at it simultaneously. It was one of the most surreal things I havhe ever experienced. About 2 seconds later the ground started moving. It was an earthquake text alert. Probably the second most surreal thing I have ever experienced. For over ten seconds the ground shook – I had a mild panic for a millisecond then realised nobody seemed to care, they all put their phones away and carried on staring at their coffee, and my water bottle was filled during the shaking with the skill of an air hostess during turbulence. This is life in Japan. It was a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in the west of the country, which felt like 3.0 to us in Kyoto over 300kms away. The locals might have taken it in their stride but it was a scary reminder to us foreigners that nature is a powerful beast.

Shrines and temples in Kyoto

We had heard that Kurama, a small village about 20km north of Kyoto in the mountains, has an annual fire festival on 22nd October, the day we would happen to be leaving Kyoto. Who doesn’t want to experience a fire festival? That’s also what about 10,000 other people thought. On our way out of the city we were stood outside a supermarket and heard someone shout “Debs and Jo” from a car window. It’s strange that when you first leave home, every time you hear someone shout something that might be your name you turn round only to remind yourself that you are away from home and nobody knows you, of course they are not shouting you. After over a year we are now tuned out to any shouting – who would know us? So it was strange that someone actually did. In the car was a primary school child from the British School in Tokyo who had been in our presentation. We are famous in Japan! Almost.

Fire festival preparations

We arrived in Kurama just before 3pm as we wanted to get our loaded bikes in before the roads around the village closed. All of the houses had piles of wood or large torches ready to be set on fire later, and there were young men wandering round in traditional outfits (read: practically nothing). As it got dark the crowd grew and by 6pm things were starting to be set on fire and the place was packed. In a country where health and safety rules are rarely bent – for example, Tokyo has an Eiffel Tower replica which has to be painted orange and white, like all the masts in Japan, to meet health and safety requirements – it seemed a little risky to have so much fire on a narrow street of old wooden houses surrounded by forest, but maybe that’s just me being picky. Every policeman in the Kyoto region was on hand to control the crowds, and so you couldn’t actually stand and watch what was going on but had to walk (very slowly, 10,000 people remember) around a cordoned off loop. About 30% of this was in front of the interesting stuff, the rest was around the back of the village where you couldn’t see anything. It was all quite odd and very busy, and we didn’t see much until about 9pm when most people got back on the train to Kyoto. Then it got interesting as we could see the chanting, the marching, the carrying of fire torches and other crazy things. It was quite an incredible thing to witness.

Huge fires close to wooden buildings – no worries

About 10.30pm we managed to get back to our bikes and started to think about where we would camp. First choice was north of the village in the forest, but we had seen bear signs and the odd English-speaking local said “bear!” as soon as we mentioned we were sleeping in a tent. Not being a fan of camping with bears we were just wondering what to do when a traditionally-dressed local saw our bikes and shouted “beer” (much better than bear) so we spent the next hour sitting drinking beer and having a strange conversation with two guys in strange outfits in mime and bits of English. As soon as a young person passed by they would be grabbed, shoved in front of us and instructed to translate for a while, and only released from their embarrassment when the next potential translator arrived. When we said we were from Leicester we received the reply of “champions!” (while pointing at his foot) and “Shinji Okazaki” – it’s not just in Italy where our city can now be identified by football fans. Another guy, who turned out to be a chef, brought out a plate of sushi which was amazing as we had mistakenly assumed that there would be food available at the festival (maybe that would be a health and safety problem) and had only eaten a jam sandwich since lunch. There was just about time to witness some more chanting and fire carrying and then at 1am we finally escaped and found a patch of grass under the train line for our tent (hopefully away from the bears, but we hung our food anyway) wondering why we were bothering for four hours sleep. But the evening as a whole was well worth the lack of sleep that followed.

Just a snippet of the flesh on show in Kurama

After a 5am start we rode with our eyes barely open back through Kyoto via the famous bamboo forest and the less famous kimono forest. Being up early we beat the crowds for once and enjoyed some peace and quiet. An uneventful 50km ride through busy suburbia (there is no separation between towns at all in this part of the country – one just blends into the other in an endless stream of supermarkets, car garages, convenience stores etc) took us to Mike and Tomoko’s house. Mike had cycle toured lots himself and as soon as we arrived said the magic words – “you probably want some snacks” – and that’s it, we were settled in for a few days.

Bamboo/kimono forests in Kyoto

Mike and Tomoko drove us out to Dreamton, an English style theme village where the eccentric owner has built English-looking buildings and covered the place with English trinkets, including pub signs, other antiques, and a wedding dress shop. Naturally. It was all very bemusing and a lot of fun. We had afternoon tea in the Pont Oak cafe where the toilet has a picture of Wills and Kate on the wall, cut out to look like it is a photo that was maybe taken of them while they were visiting. It was fun to eat scones and lemon cake and drink Earl Grey, although Bezza would be disappointed that it wasn’t a lemon drizzle. That evening we had our first conveyor-belt sushi experience, which was all the better for being with people who could explain what is was that we were eating.

A slice of England in Japan (kind of)

Chatting to Mike and Tomoko helped us finalise plans for our last week or so in Japan. We were tired of busy, heavily trafficked roads surrounded by buildings, and set out to find some quiet scenic roads on the island of Shikoku.

Thanks to Kevin, Rob, Kurama’s Shinji Okazaki fans, and Mike and Tomoko.

Some rules are made to be broken (but not many): Adventures in Tokyo

Landing in Tokyo was quite the culture shock. The beauty of travelling by bike is that the scenery/culture/people/weather changes gradually as you move across countries or continents, so nothing is ever that big a shock. Sit on a plane for twelve hours however and you can suddenly find yourself somewhere totally different to where you last went to sleep.

I (Jo) usually hate flying, but in fact it was a welcome respite from the stress of getting the boxed bikes and ourselves to the airport and planning how to do the opposite when we landed in Tokyo. 12 hours where I could relax, sit still, and not have to make any decision other than whether to watch Finding Dory first or play Tetris. In fact the first thing we did was watch Bake Off, which we usually like to do with either a cake or if not, an alternative dessert item. As neither of these options were available straight after take off we settled for a Baileys. Rock and roll. Our flight was an hour late landing which meant that the last bus we could catch into the city left fifty minutes from the time we unbuckled our seat belts on the plane. Japan has a reputation for efficiency but surely this is not enough to get disembark, clear immigration, collect our bags, find and collect the boxed bikes, clear customs, find the bus stop, buy the right bus ticket…. but sure enough, 45 minutes after landing we were stood in the bus queue, tickets in hand. This has to be a record. There was even time for a first Japanese toilet bum-washing experience (more on that later). We made it to our hosts and somehow it was Thursday night already. A day had disappeared.


We had five days in Tokyo, and most of these were spent wandering around wondering what on earth was going on. Walking through Shinjuku and Shibuya at night was exactly how Tokyo looked in my head – neon lights, flashing billboards, lots of noise, traffic and people. Yet a couple of subway stops away you can walk through tiny, quiet residential streets and feel a million miles away from the craziness. We went to supermarkets and stared at shelf upon shelf of things that we didn’t have a clue what they were. A bit more transparent packaging would help foreigners try to work out what’s inside. One lunchtime we ordered food from a ticket machine outside a restaurant, took the ticket inside, then two minutes later collected our food. We cycled around gazing at all the symbols on road signs wondering how we were going to navigate our way out of the city. The search for a decent road map in English that wasn’t a million pounds proved fruitless.



One morning we went to Senso-Ji temple, which was so busy with tourists (almost all Japanese) that there was no sense of peace at all. Wandering round to one of the smaller shrines on the same complex we saw there was a wedding, and the whole family were posing for photos taken by tourists they had never met. Strange, but not as strange as the fact that directly opposite this wedding was a girl and a monkey dressed in exactly the same outfits. On the opposite side of the river was the Asahi building that looks like a beer. A group of people drove past us in go karts wearing Mario Kart outfits. Everywhere you look there is something crazy going on.


Tokyo is a fairly cycling-friendly city. There aren’t so many bike lanes but most pavements (sidewalks to our American friends) are designated shared use, and if they’re not, people cycle on them anyway. In fact we soon noticed that it was only us and the cycle couriers bothering to ride in the road. And wear a helmet. The infrastructure might not quite be there but the culture of cycling reminded us of Northern Europe – people of all ages riding town bikes with baskets in their normal clothes. Mums riding with kids on the front/back, boys in track suits riding to sports practices with their kit bag in their basket. No lycra, no helmets, just functional riding. It’s a fairly densly populated city so weaving in and out of all the pedestrians on the path takes some skill, and doing it one handed whilst carrying an umbrella takes even more. It was all a bit advanced for us so we took our chances with the road traffic.


All of this makes Tokyo a good place to explore by bike. Until you actually want to get off. We realised pretty quickly that if you don’t have a stand, your chances of finding somewhere to leave your bike drop dramatically. There’s bicycle parking places everywhere, but they are just that – a space in a car park with a bicycle painted on the floor. No posts. No use to us stand-less foreigners. There’s also certain streets where you are not allowed to leave bikes, and if you do they are likely to be ticketed or removed (we saw both happen). There may or may not be a sign informing you of this. Our first brush with Japanese police was when we visited the famous Tsukiji fish market and tried to park our bikes outside. No! (Despite these teething problems the market was quite the experience. More things we didn’t recognise; men chopping fish with swords; fish heads everywhere). It is fascinating which rules/laws are obeyed to the letter and which are more flexible. Japanese cyclists also don’t seem too worry too much about cycling on the wrong side of the road, or riding through red lights. We are yet to see anyone local cross an empty road whilst the red man is still on though.


A walking tour around Ueno park was a good introduction to Japanese culture. An old guy (the ageing population over here is very obvious) walked us around for a couple of hours and explained a few key things. We learnt the difference between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines; how Japan has prominent, random statues of people who once visited to dubious benefit of the country; that homeless people who live in the park tidy their possessions up into a cube shape wrapped in tarpaulin during the day and leave them neatly lined up on the path; and that there is a street in the city devoted entirely to producing and selling the frighteningly accurate plastic replica meals you see in restaurant windows. Armed with this information we felt more ready to take on this weird and wonderful country.


Our final day was mostly spent at the British School in Tokyo talking about our trip with primary and then secondary students. This was a lot of fun, and the older students had their own budget to plan a trip at the end of the school year so it was good to answer their questions. Mark increased our knowledge of Japanese law intricacies by informing us that crime is so low that he leaves his iPhone lying around unattended with no trouble but umbrella theft is rife. In between the sessions we rode to Meiji Shrine, struggled to find somewhere to lean our bikes in the bike parking area and were told off for eating a banana outside the park. Later that day Debs picked up a green basket at the supermarket from near the checkout only to have it swiftly snatched from her and replaced with a red one. We still had a lot to learn.


Thanks to Richard and family; Mark and everyone at BST.