Cycling Shikoku saved us from scurvy

It was dark by the time the ferry docked at Takamatsu. We had identified a sports centre campground about 10K out of town, so after a supermarket sushi stop we rode south and uphill towards it. Arriving at the sports complex was just that. There were lots of little roads, unhelpful staircases and we couldn’t see the symbols for camping anywhere. Jo went into a building that looked a bit like a conference centre to ask. Weirdly, she could get into the building but not out. I had to get the automatic doors to open from outside. With directions from the staff, we found the camping area – closed due to wild boars. Lots of warning signs. Hmmm. As it was now 9pm we didn’t fancy riding much further, so went back to the facility to ask for more help. Turns out it was an old people’s home. Jo got stuck inside again, this time with no helpful information. We found a bit of grass next to an astroturf pitch and hoped the wild boar didn’t fancy a midnight kick about. This started a Shikoku trend of campsites that were either brilliant or bizarre. Top ones included a beach side spot under a handy shelter, and on the scenic Shimanto riverside. The real low was on some deeply furrowed ground at the side of a forestry building in a small village. Very bumpy.

Route 32. Flat-ish for a while
Route 32. Flat-ish for a while

It was great cycling south along route 32, finally we had found a road that was flat-ish and not super busy. It was along a scenic river gorge, had some fun tunnels and some great fake construction men. We also had our second Japanese Police encounter. A kind man stopped, showed us his badge, gave us a whopping bag of mandarins, told us to call the police if we had any problems (possibly, it was in Japanese but I got the numbers) and drove off. We had just bought a bag of mandarins so the food pannier became a little unwieldy. They had just come into season and had become Japan’s only affordable produce item. There are some seriously pricey nashi pears around should you be considering a fruit based investment any time soon. Even better, next time you are mentally planning what to do with your lottery winnings, buy an orchard in Japan.

Well-looked after fruit in Japan comes with a hefty price tag
Well-looked after fruit in Japan comes with a hefty price tag

The cycling went figuratively downhill but actually uphill when we turned off to visit a bridge made from vines in a neighbouring valley. We saw a little road barrier up above us, virtually in cloud, and thought, ‘wow, you couldn’t get up there in 6km, that can’t be our road.’ Apparently you could, and it was. We cursed our choice, especially knowing that we would have to do the climb in reverse the next day. Even better, the next day it rained like the sky was falling in. Luckily the vine bridge was very cool indeed.

Amazing vine bridge.
Amazing vine bridge.

It was great to see the sea and the sunshine after we left Kochi on the Saturday morning. The road followed the south coast for a good stretch and we passed lots of pilgrims in hats and white shirts walking the 88 temples route. We turned further inland on route 81, followed the Shimanto river and supplemented our mandarin intake with local kaki. Shikoku was definitely the best cycling of our time in Japan, even before we found out about hat cakes. The road along the west coast was right along the sea, great views, occasional beaches and even more mandarins and kakis. This time free from some kind ladies in a bakery that filled our water bottles too. We also had another fun ‘onsen before bed’ camping night. Though I think some of the onsen-induced relaxation may have been lost as we had to put up the tent in rain and high winds in the dark after our soothing soak. Jo was particularly proud of her tarp-windbreak construction.

The 88 temple trail is a popular long distance hiking route
The 88 temple trail is a popular long distance hiking route
Great breakfast spot after an uncomfortable sleep on bumps.
Great breakfast spot after an uncomfortable sleep on bumps.
Lots of little harbours and fishing villages.
Lots of little harbours and fishing villages.
Jo's excellent engineering
Jo’s excellent engineering

Arriving by ferry to Kyushu, we decided to have a rest afternoon and more onsen time in Beppu. It’s possible we didn’t see it’s best areas, as Beppu appeared to be a bit like a Japanese Skegness with more sleaze and hot springs, and less stag dos and candyfloss. It was the ugliest town we had seen (there had been a few unpretty ones) and the only town we visited in Japan where it seemed like there might be somewhere you shouldn’t walk at night. The old onsen building made up for it – a historic wooden and stone building with very hot baths for one US dollar. Brilliant. Beppu really made itself unforgettable when our sushi arrived on a mini bullet train later that evening. I cannot imagine why this travel experience is not listed in any information I have read about Japan.

Loved it.
Loved it.

Running out of time, we took the most direct route to Fukuoka and it wasn’t super fun. If you find yourself cycling in Kyushu, leave more time and go a different way to us. The highlight of the trip was finding egg and rice vending machines with a pleasant rest area at the roadside. As I’ve since learned there’s an egg vending machine in Sileby, Leicestershire, probably go for the mini-train Sushi when you are planning your own trip. When we spoke to locals in the Tokyo and Fuji area at the start of our Japan cycle, their reaction to us cycling to Fukuoka was usually ‘This is not possible,’ accompanied by headshakes, crazy foreigner expressions etc. They were nearly proved right, when on the last day we saw some mile markers counting down to something. It turned out they were counting down to the point the road became a motorway and bikes were not allowed. Cue steep and long detour on much smaller road. As I said, go a different way to us.

Japan is a fantastic country to visit. Cycling on Honshu and along our Kyushu route is not for the faint hearted as the more built up areas can be very busy. Having said that, car drivers were almost always patient and considerate when passing us. Shikoku was by far the most enjoyable cycling of our trip.

Fab cycling on Shikoku
Fab cycling on Shikoku
Riding right along the sea
Riding right along the sea

Navigating Japan wasn’t too tricky – we didn’t buy the maps that most cycling websites recommend and just used our offline map to find ourselves in cities sometimes. There were times when we had to look for the Kanji for a town name as English wasn’t on the signs, this was more tricky. The only symbols I would be confident to recognise only a few weeks later are the five that make up ‘campground’ and the one for ‘western’ toilet (as opposed to squat). I wish we had learned more Japanese to speak to people though we always managed to achieve what we needed with some prepared phrases, gesturing etc. People were friendly and kind, even when they clearly thought we were deranged for cycling so far with loads of stuff. Just like people we have met in Italy, Croatia, USA and everywhere else.

Japan wasn’t part of the original trip plan, but I’m really pleased we took the opportunity to visit this truly unique place. Great scenery, awesome food, and a good sprinkling of crazy stuff.

A fair sprinkling of crazy stuff. More than one gas station had their own T Rex.
A fair sprinkling of crazy stuff. More than one gas station had their own T Rex.

Ten things that made us smile in Japan

We arrived in Japan not knowing what to expect, other than that it would be very different from cycling across the USA. It ended up being a country that entertained us in many ways. Japan is a great place to cycle tour for a number of reasons – good food and water is everywhere, camping is easy and hot springs (onsens) are a great way to end a day’s cycling. But one of the best things is that so many small, quirky things made us smile over and over again. Here is just a selection!

The cloud blocking the view of Mt Fuji didn’t make us smile, but it’s ok because lots of other things did…

Food surprises

We mentioned banana surprises earlier, but this was not the only food surprise. A lot of food was a surprise for us as we had no idea what we were buying a lot of the time, but particular foods even when you thought you knew them could still surprise you. Take the humble hat cake. (No? It’s a Kochi speciality. A cake shaped like a hat). The first one we tried was plain. It was great. Then we bit into our next one to find a sweet bean paste filling. Surprise! Another one of our favourite snacks was a fried potato fritter type thing that had different flavoured fillings. But they all looked the same on the outside so we never knew what our filling might be. Meat, vegetables, curry… surprise! The perfect cyclist snack, onigiri (a rice triangle wrapped in seaweed), has flavoured fillings according to the colour of the label. But we never seemed to get the same one twice. It was always a surprise.

Onigiri surprise; friend potato surprise; and hat cake surprise.

(Note: not all surprises were good. Debs was not impressed to bite into things that appeared to be chocolate only to find nuts. Though in those situations I got two to eat, so it’s not all bad.)

Construction workers

It seemed to us that the vast majority of Japanese men nearing retirement are employed in the construction industry. Mostly in the important task of supervision. Every construction site, however big or small, would have a team of construction supervisors at the entrance making sure there was no confusion over who had right of way and directing traffic and pedestrians with large glow sticks/lights sabres or flags. This role was taken seriously. And for cyclists it is amazing – as soon as they see you coming, you see the oversized glow stick wave and the traffic is held up until you are safely through. Awesome.

Not yet moved up the ladder to get a glow stick, the humble flag waverer keeps traffic moving.

Model people

We found some instances where there must somehow be a shortage of men nearing retirement so a model construction worker had to be used instead. The level of attention to detail was impressive. We also found model policemen, a model car park attendant and many very realistic scarecrows.

Construction worker; parking attendant; policeman. Some more life-like than others. I still wasn’t sure whether the dude on the left was real or fake until I got within a few meters.

Vending machines

Probably the thing you see most often in Japan, more than convenience stores and shrine gates, is a vending machine. They are everywhere. If you were in a car you would never have to drive for more than five minutes without seeing one, which means on a bike they are pretty regular too. More impressive than their contents were how they were installed, run and refilled in some of the most out of the way places, like the edge of a field. Mostly they have cold drinks, but if you are lucky there will be not one vending machine but a row, with different delights in each. We saw beer, cigarettes, sake (wine), ice cream, noodles. But we were expecting more diversity, and on our penultimate day in Japan vending machines got a whole load more interesting when we saw a lay-by with an egg vending machine and a rice one.

The thing you see the most of in Japan. A vending machine (or 4) on every corner.

Tannoy systems

There you are, riding along a quiet road, and from nowhere a tannoy system fires up and starts playing random music. This was nice. Less nice was when riding past crop fields and some kind of animal noise starts playing, presumably to scare away birds (and cyclists). Most entertaining was probably when we were in our tent almost asleep and Auld Lang Syne started playing over the campsite tannoy, and was repeated lullaby-style for fifteen minutes to demonstrate that fun time was over. I’m actually not sure this made us smile at the time, but the extensive tannoy system is a funny part of life in Japan.

Pointless jobs

As well as the hundreds of jobs available in construction for those skilled with a giant glow stick, there are many other jobs that some people (us) might consider a little pointless. There is obviously leaf-blowing, the most pointless job ever that can be seen across the world, but we had some Japan-specific favourites: someone holding a sign warning that construction is ahead (just put a sign up?); steam cleaning the white line on the side of the road (its Japan, it’s not that dirty anyway); and a strimmer’s mate, someone holding a screen next to a verge strimmer to stop the grass spreading on the pavement (resoundingly unsuccessfully).

We felt sorry for the guys holding up signs warning of roadworks ahead. He didn’t even get a flag, never mind a glowstick. A sign on it’s own would probably do the same job.


Like the loser I am, I find signs in different countries fascinating. It shows how there are innumerable ways of conveying the same type of instructions/warnings. In Japan it is mostly kid cartoon style, even sometimes kids drawings. We wondered if towns had competitions in primary schools to design some signs, particularly those telling you not to drop litter. Quite serious warnings (e.g. be careful not to die from this or that) were portrayed with cartoon animals. Others just made us laugh.

Beware of cartoon dog poo; sad workmen; bears on bikes; sleeping dogs; and many other road hazards.

English translations

I don’t think we’ve cycled in a country where less English was spoken, so it was strange to see English translations in many places (particularly supermarket departments). But there’s a bit of work to be done on the quality of the English.

Going to the toilet

Another great feature of Japan for cyclists is that there are public toilets everywhere, and they are the cleanest toilets I have ever seen. But they are more than just toilets. They are shower toilets, with full washing facilities. Also you can use the music button to play a flushing sound, covering any embarrassing noises (sometimes this noise is automatic). Even better, toilets in hostels/hotels have toilet slippers, so you change your regular slippers at the door for plastic toilet slippers. Brilliant. The toilet instructions also never failed to make us smile.

Toilets here in New Zealand are so dull in comparison.

Sushi on a Shinkansen

On our last night in Japan our sushi arrived on a Shinkansen (bullet train). Smiles all round.

Thanks to Japan for making us smile.

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.

Britishcitizens & Bananas: cycling Tokyo to Kyoto

Tokyo was a lot of fun but after 6 nights it was time to get going. The ride out of the city was relatively painless, (See Boston, Zurich; Atonyms Naples, San Francisco) especially once we joined the Tama River cycle route. Uneventful cycling was made up for by other random stuff, including:
-Our first earth tremor in Japan. Let’s not say Earthquake because that’s a bit scary.

-I saw Mt Fuji then clouds hid it. Jo wasn’t sure whether to believe me or not.

-A fab food surprise. Bought a fridge bakery item that looked like chocolate flavour sweet bread with a very generous cream filling. Felt pretty weighty. Turned out it had a whole banana inside. That’s the stuff cyclists’ dreams are made of.

-Pensioners’ baseball training. Lots of old men arriving at riverside ball parks with full kit and bats in their bike baskets.

-Walking group Wednesday. If you don’t play baseball in the Tama river area, you join a walking group. Hundreds of hikers bemused by the British bikers.

-A friendly cyclist stopping us and asking us to wait a moment. He ran off the cycle path and came back with bottles of cold water for us. It was a hot morning and a really lovely gesture.

-A road cyclist passed us wearing a balaclava type garment with no eye or mouth holes. It was black. Creepy.

Ohio! Walking group Wednesday.

We left the river and rode uphill in a narrow valley, getting occasional glimpses of Mt Fuji as clouds moved. There was hardly any traffic and a noticeable drop in temperature as we got higher. We found an actual campground and had a long unproductive discussion in Japanese/English with the owner. After some time we worked out that he was telling us about a big power cut in Tokyo.

We followed a little footpath and found this awesome swing bridge.

Early to bed, early to ride up hill. Apparently we were ascending a 1000m pass. There wasn’t much around in the way of food. Eventually we found an open shop and got bread for jam sandwiches. Then it got even colder and started raining. In the clouds we couldn’t we see far in front of us let alone see Fuji. It wasn’t a great deal of fun, and with a better weather forecast the next day we stopped riding early and enjoyed being indoors and having a Japanese bath at a youth hostel. It was a lot of fun eating at a tiny table in our room and arranging our bedding for comfy seating.

Gourmet noodle and lots of snuggly blankets.

Cycling around Fuji’s five lakes the next day was much more enjoyable. At times there were clear views of the volcano and an amazing descent into a river valley. I was on the lookout for Shinkansen, but we were just by the normal train lines. We camped in an empty plot in a village and felt lucky to have found it. Nearly all the flat empty land here is used for growing rice and veg. Even really small patches have rows of leafy greens or a few fruit trees. We had asked permission from the next door house, and the friendly family later brought us out two homemade onigiri and a beer each. Mt Fuji and a beer in the tent – Happy Friday night!

Fuji-san. Always cool to see things in real life you’ve seen loads of pictures of.

The next morning we were drying the tent outside a Michi-no-Eki (like a service station, but with local veg, nice normal price food and no petrol) when a young man came over to chat. First he handed me a plastic bag from the nearby supermarket as he thought we had a long way to ride. It had 2 onigiri and 4 bananas in. He asked about the trip, and then asked if I thought Japanese people were friendly. He was really surprised when I said yes, and tried to tell me that they weren’t, having just given a total stranger a bag of food. It was like some of the comments we heard in the USA about the world/strangers being scary – from people who had just invited two (slightly grubby) strangers into their homes for the evening. Everyone should remember that the world is mainly full of kind people.
That evening more friendly Japanese people let us share their campsite pitch. We were pleased they did because this was no ordinary campsite. It was in a forest park, and all of these things happened:
-As we approached the campground we could see many coloured lights and lots of cars. It was a special illuminations display. For Christmas. It was busy and strange. There was twinkly music and tannoy announcements.

-We went for our first onsen (hot springs). Jo bought the tickets from a vending machine right next to a desk with a real person behind it. We then gave the tickets to the person, who told us something in Japanese. It was probably about shoes.

-Saturday night at the onsen is busy. You go into separate men’s and women’s ones and get naked. Then you have a really good wash at a little seat with a shower next to it. Only then do you go in the hot springs. Our tan lines looked weird.

-Most people put their pyjamas on after to drive home. We just walked back to our tent. It was lovely to get in sleeping bags fully warm and relaxed. At 8:30pm.

-The illuminations tannoy also had a speaker near our tent. At 9:45pm there was an announcement and Auld Lang Syne started playing in the style of a lullaby. Apparently this is the Japanese equivalent of the last orders bell. It played on repeat until the illuminations closed at 10pm. That’s a lot of Auld Lang Syne. Each time it got to the end of the loop we hoped it would stop – those fifteen minutes seemed very long.

Sunday Funday on the road South West from Nagano.

We crossed a pass via a slightly smoggy 4.7km tunnel from our valley to another one with cool river cliffs and quieter roads. On a sunny Sunday afternoon it was the best cycling so far, but we quickly got into a busier area. Cycling in Japan seems to be either 1. Flat (ish) and along trafficky roads in highly populated areas or 2. Ridiculously hilly. The next day was almost all on a busy road with loads of traffic. To make life more interesting it had started raining heavily at about 2:30am. The tent got soaked, and then so did we packing it up. The trickle of a waterfall we had camped near was now a raging river. The rain bounced off the roads, we were being sprayed by trucks and water ran down inside our clothes. It was the anti-onsen. Slightly scraping the barrel for interesting stuff for that day, but we did enjoy a Japanese breakfast at a restaurant where you press a button to place your order. The staff didn’t even mind that we made a lake around our table.

Hikone Castle. Castles are Jō in Japanese, which Jo liked a lot.

The next couple of days took us to a castle, a lake and excitingly past real bamboo groves. Even better, we finally saw several Shinkansen. They look like Concorde and really are fast. Sadly they are not for bikes, unless you put your bike into a (regulation sized) bag. We pedalled all the way to Kyoto instead. There was time for one more little adventure. A police car pulled up in front of us with lights flashing and a Japanese loudspeaker message. Maybe they had seen us not waiting for the green man at crossings? Or perhaps we were flaunting some other road law? We definitely hadn’t eaten any bananas in parks that morning. A smiley policeman got out and asked (I think) for our Gaijin Cards (foreign residents ID). I offered passports, which he took and spent a long time copying the names and dates from. It was a relatively smooth process, after we established that Jo was Joanna Welford and not Joanna Britishcitizen. We also had fun numbering the months – not sure why UK passports do not have this information. At no point was our Japan entry sticker checked, or our passport numbers noted, but we all had a lovely time thanking each other and went our separate ways.

Thanks to: Nina & her Mum & Dad, the kind man with the tinyhouse, Gilles, Jacqueline & Robert.

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.