Narita Airport, Tokyo, Japan
A very pleasant 22c inside T3
Outside a sweltering 39.6c
Yes, we are in Tokyo in the midst of the worst heatwave for 40 years. However, we are on our way to The Gold Coast where Mr Weatherman tells me it's 23c and sunny. We can live with that. My last post was from Hokkaido where we were still wearing 3 layers of clothing and trying to shelter from a freezing wind coming from Siberia. But that all changed very quickly indeed.
|Dave, and the misting sunflowers|
The ride from Chitose to Hakodate took us around 2 lakes and along some not very memorable roads, towards the ferry to Aomori. The most memorable part of the trip were the bear warnings, several of them that included words like 'infestation' and 'dangerous'. We didn't see any, thank goodness, but it's all very real if you listen to the number of bear bells people wear and the signs in local shops. The other thing about those last few days on Hokkaido was the light was so poor I barely took any photographs, which is a shame.
|Yep, bears, and they are dangerous|
The ferry journey over to Aomori was smooth and uneventful, with us being the only foreigners on the boat yet again. At Aomori the weather turned rather wet again so we stayed put for a couple of nights and we're very glad we did, we really liked the city. The Nebuta Festival happens every August between 2nd and 7th, where enormous lantern floats, drummers, musicians and dancers all parade through the city. We were fortunate to be able to see the floats for this year's festival being constructed, and, at the museum saw several of the floats and masks from last year's festival displayed beautifully. They were truly magnificent.
From Aomori we set out towards the east coast and intended to go to Towada but we were thwarted by a 'Car Only' road which Maps.me doesn't seem to know about. We were to find several of these roads on Honshu and while the cars got to travel along flatish roads, through brand new tunnels and landscapes, the cyclists and trucks got to climb several hundred metres at a time in order to go around. Thanks guys! This meant we ended up on the 123, which started off OK but turned into a beautiful forest track. Fifteen kilometres later we were STILL on a forest track, in the middle of the forest, with absolutely no way of seeing where we were headed. Needless to say, forest tracks are much more time consuming than good old asphalt so several hours later we were still nowhere near our destination. Finally, track turned to asphalt, we changed direction slightly and ended up near Misawa. Oh well that's what adventures are made of.
|Beautiful countryside, planted up|
We had decided to take the east coast knowing we would be witnessing the aftermath of the 2011 Tsunami. Seven years on and, after all, this is Japan we thought, they'll have sorted most of it out by now. How wrong we were. I remember seeing the terrifying footage when it happened, all that water forcing its way into towns and cities, but really we had no idea of the extent of the damage or the distances involved. I also remember the reports coming out of the Fukushima Nuclear plant, those words 'there is steam coming from the cooling towers' were etched on everyone's brain because many of us remember Chernobyl and the devastation THAT caused, and is still causing, we knew what those words meant.
|Huge sea wall|
|Look out tower and tsunami sign|
From Misawa we began our route south towards Hachinohe and onto Kuji where we would witness the first of the tsunami damage. Kuji is 335 miles north of Sendai, where the earthquake measuring 9.1, hit. It was 10kms deep and it took an hour for the tsunami to start its journey. As we made our way further south along the east coast each area hit by the tsunami seemed to be worse than the previous. The water seemed to come in a bit further, or take out more of a town or village, or more people died or were missing. As you can imagine, the coastline is very different in all those areas, and as such the reparations and defences they are putting in place are different for each area. Some have giant, 30 metre plus, concrete sea walls, others have pyramid structures which will divert the water in and around, presumably to cause less damage. Others have the water diverted upwards in order to slow the flow down, we also saw channels where water would be forced to flow down and across land.
|Another type of defence|
The signs all along the coastline constantly tell us how many metres above sea level we are, even if that is just 1.5 metres. We saw two kinds of signs the 'past' tsunami indundation area signs as well as 'estimated', presumably the computer modelled estimation of what might happen if there was another in the future. It hit home to me one particular day, cycling up the first of many hills, when at 39 metres above sea level I passed a 'past tsunami inundation end' sign. I thought 'shit, I'm cycling up a hill, miles from the sea and the water came up this far'. It was then I began to think about how terrifying it must have been to have been involved in such a terrible distaster. In Sendai, the water penetrated the land by 10 kms!
|The only sign we saw referring to 'Tidal Wave' all the others referred to 'Tsunami'|
The going was hilly for the first week, climbing 500-600 metres each day, one day it was over 1200 metres, and the weather was still a bit iffy, albeit much warmer than Hokkaido. In fact, the moment we arrived in Aomori we noticed the change in temperature immediately, at least a 10c gain, so the rain we experienced was not freezing as in Hokkaido, we were grateful for that, as well as the lack of bear signs, phew! At this time the west coast was seeing terrible floods as a result of a typhoon coming up from the south, we just got the tail end of that which resulted in a day of rain and some dense fog.
By the time we reached Kamaishi and Kesennuma the devastation was pretty horrific. There was either nothing, everything had been flattened, or, it was new. Some larger buildings survived in Kesennuma but many were flushed away with the flood. There's a video on YouTube which will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, watch it if you can.
|Michi-no-eki, showing flood level after the tsunami|
We made our way to Sendai, a lovely city, seemingly recovered from the 10km inundation they experienced, where we spent a couple of nights before setting off on our final leg towards Tokyo. It was at Minamisoma that we discovered it wasn't possible to carry on cycling on the 6 because of the exclusion zones which were still in place around Fukushima. It took a very concerned 7/11 employee to alert us to the fact that it was 'dangerous'. I suppose we envisaged signs, or barriers, of some kind informing us we couldn't go any further, especially when we know that the Japanese are SO safety conscious, but there was nothing. We now know that we would only have been turned back at the outer edge of the exclusion zone, but that was another 10 kms, so we would have had another 20kms added to the 10kms we were already going to have to backtrack to go around the zone.
Having ascertained we couldn't go on we sat down to work out a route around, at which point a Japanese man, in his 50s I guess, came to talk to us. We think the 7/11 employee, knowing he spoke some English, had told him about us. He too was very concerned that we understand we couldn't cycle through the exclusion zones. He said the only road we could take was the 12, that meant we had to backtrack and go into the mountains, it would add at least 2 days to our journey, but we had allowed plenty of time so we weren't too concerned. He told us that more than 100 people had died since the disaster, 'blood cancer, but nobody wants to talk about it'.
We chatted to him for sometime. He had been to England in the past, he mentioned Trinity College Cambridge although whether he studied there or just visited we don't know. He spoke at least 3 languages (Japanese, Spanish and English) and was clearly an educated man, however, he worked as a security guard. This came out during a conversation about unemployment levels in the UK and Japan, I'm guessing he would rather not be a security guard. After a good 15 minutes or so, just before he left us, 4 police officers turned up and went into the 7/11, shortly after they came out and spoke to us, all had mobile phones in hand with translation and map apps at the ready. After some toing and froing we reassured them that we knew what the situation was and we would definitely be going to ride up the 12 and into the mountains.
One of the officers still seemed agitated so I fired up the mic on Google Translate (luckily we had wifi at the 7/11) and gave it to him to speak into. I still have it on my phone, he said 'the store clerk thought you would be here forever', at which point Dave and I burst out laughing thinking it was his idea of a joke. Stony faces all round, we were the only ones who thought this was funny. Then the penny dropped, the 7/11 clerk had CALLED the Police, rather than it being some kind of coincidence. Jeez, this was turning into one hell of a day.
So we backtracked towards the 12, it was midday by this time and already in the mid 30s (the temperatures were starting to soar at this point) but we decided to start tackling the hills anyway. A lovely young man stopped us to give us 2 bottles of cold, green tea on the longest stretch, so that was nice. It was along this stretch that we noticed the toxic waste piles, all covered over with plastic. At first we didn't know what it was but then it dawned on us, they are piling it up in the mountains because they don't know what to do with it. Subsequent research confirms this to be the case. What on earth is going to happen?
|Storing toxic waster from Fukushima at Iidate|
|The road around Fukushima|
The detour turned out to be a rather lovely, but hilly, affair. Some of the villages we rode through had the most beautiful old houses, some of them lovingly restored others falling into complete disrepair. The hills were covered in trees, I had no idea there was SO much forest in Japan, so many hues of green. The rice paddies and the flowers, the allotments and rivers and streams, it was all so picturesque.
The easiest route would have been to join Highway 4 straight south but we had touched on it further north and because it was a main trunk road it was busy, and dirty, so we headed back to the coast to join the 6 again. There was less devastation after this point, still some reminders of the tsunami but not as much as further north. At Hitachi we headed inland towards Tokyo. It became clear at this point that Japan was in the midst of an unprecedented heatwave. More than 30 people have died from heatstroke or heat-related illnesses as for the 10th day in a row temperatures have exceeded 38c, higher in some places.
While we were in the north Osaka experienced an earthquake, measuring 5.5, killing 4 people and injuring almost 500. Not long after the earthquake there were devastating floods on the west coast as a result of a typhoon. Japan really does get it's fair share of terrible weather. Our friend we met outside the 7/11 pointed out that perhaps Japan is NOT the place for a nuclear power plant, given its tendencies towards such weather, especially not in Fukushima, what with the mountains and the rain that helped the disaster along immensely. We experienced at least 3 aftershocks, measuring only 2.2 - 2.7 (they were listed on the Japan Meteorological website) where the buildings shook and there was quite a lot of whooness going on, but those around us didn't seem to notice.
Cycling into Tokyo was incredibly easy. Right up until the last 5kms it felt like we were riding through a lot of joined up villages until BOOM, suddenly you arrive. But even then, the BOOM is nothing compared to other cities, drivers are still driving nice and calmly, slowly even, and incredibly courteous, it's all very harmonious. The first bike shop we stopped at had 2 bike boxes, thankfully, so we folded them up and attached them to the bikes making them look a little like flying machines. We enlisted the assistance of one of the receptionists who spoke good English to help us sort out the bikes getting to the airport, we used Sagawa, a transportation company, the total cost was yen 10,000, worth it when you consider the alternative - carrying 2 boxed bikes (how?) plus panniers to the station, on the train, into the airport in almost 40c. Nah.
We were in Ueno, a lovely district in Tokyo with a fantastic park (the coolest place to be) sporting an Australian - Japanese Friendship festival, they must have known where we were headed :) We spent a wonderful evening with Markus (Luisa's partner, Luisa is Dave's cousin, living in Canada) wem metat the Tokyo American Club (where they do a mean gin and tonic by the way) and then hopped in a taxi to Andy's izakaya, a small 'under the railway arches' eatery, run by Andy from Leicester, although he's been in Japan forever. It was while we were filling our boots from the liquor vending machines (also under the arches) that we met Graham, who joined us to eat. Markus ordered the food, which was amazing, and the drinks, which were strong, and a fantastic time was had by all. Markus missed his train back to Chiba, we managed to find our way back to Ueno, we waved goodbye to Graham not knowing what was going to happen to him. Hopefully, he made it home. We were a little fuzzy around the edges the following day, but we had such a great time, thanks Markus a fitting farewell to Tokyo and Japan.
Markus, our host for the evening
|Andy, he's done this before hasn't he?|
Talking of farewells, we were in Japan for over 2 months, the longest we've been anywhere on this trip so to try and talk about EVERYTHING is nigh on impossible, but here are some highlights:
Pachinko slot machines - these institutions are EVERYWHERE, even in the wilds of Hokkaido, many of them with pictures of scantily clad women beckoning you in.
Eateries - So many of them, from the tiniest hole in the wall to the absolutely huge. There are chains like Hotto Motto, Big Boy (yes, that's right), Sukaya, CoCo Curry and many, many more where you can have a set meal for a reasonable price, about 5 quid. There are a couple of cheap sushi chains (name escapes me, but it will always have sushi in the name :) where you get a plate of sushi for yen100/150 (2 pieces). Convenience stores are great places to eat and drink cheaply, meals you microwave or noodles (all shops have hot water) coffee for less than a quid, a many of them have seats, wifi and USB points to charge up. Expect to eat a lot of noodles, we ate our own body weight while there.
Seasons - it's possible to return to Japan, year on year, at different times of the year, and still not see everything. You can ski in the winter, follow the Sakura in spring, see any number of festivals all year round, lavender in Hokkaido in the summer and the list goes on. Seriously, there is SO much to see, we were here for over 2 months and saw very little.
Accommodation - if you want to stay in hotels in Japan the cheapest way is either dorm or capsule. A room will set you back 45-75 quid, for an average, but always spotlessly clean, room. The downside of Japanese hotels being scrupulously clean is that to do all that cleaning they need time, so they tend to have late check ins (3-4pm) and early checkouts (10-11am) and don't try and check in early, you will be charged yen 1000 per hour! There are plenty of free camping sites and of course the Michi-no-ekis mentioned previously, I suggest joining the Free Camping and Hot Springs group on FB for more information. Parks are a favourite of touring cyclists, there's always a 24 hr toilet block (clean, with toilet paper and drinking water) although don't expect a lie-in, cleaning usually starts around 6am, so there'll be people milling around, walking the dog, exercising, practicing their saxophone etc. The Japanese are early risers.
Rubbish - there are no bins, you are expected to take your rubbish 'home' with you, but what if you have no home to go to? Convenience stores have recycle bins, and on Honshu we found most of them would take the 'combustible' rubbish, but in Hokkaido only plastics and definitely no glass - our empty wine bottles were usually bagged up and left in one of the rubbish cages (bear-proof) on the edge of the road.
Countryside and Gardens - I had no idea Japan had so much forest and it's all ridiculously green. It's also very mountainous, so beware going off piste into the hills, some of them are long and steep. The Japanese love their gardens and they are all incredibly orderly. Often the front garden is a little allotment, growing vegetables and flowers alongside rice paddies.
Hot Springs - I discovered that I actually like my own company when it comes to bathing and Dave really wasn't bothered especially when he discovered he would have to cover up his tattoo to enter an Onsen (Yakuza not allowed) so we didn't bother with them most of the time, although I understand the attraction of sitting in some of the natural springs, with a fab view and nobody else around, I get that!
People - We have loved the Japanese people. They are so respectful, kind, considerate, unassuming and very incurious. While you may feel like a right Gringo and not understand anything that's going on around you nobody will stare at you, but they will help you out if you need it. Like the lovely man who took our bag of rubbish from us on the beach saying 'to my home', with a very deep, respectful bow. How kind is that? He would have had to dig around in our rubbish to recycle it, that's what I call doing someone a favour. There are so many examples of kindness I can't list them here. The other thing to note is that Japan is one of the safest countries we've every visited. We left our money belt on top of the bike one day, went shopping for an hour, when we finally realised we didn't have it and went back to the bike a little apprehensive, there it was, exactly where we left it.
Wifi - download the Japan Free Wifi app and sign up to it, you can search and login to any free wifi (most convenience stores have it). We managed without personal wifi most of the time we were in Japan.
Wildlife - The bears, of course, but the butterflies - they are SO plentiful and beautiful, caterpillars, frogs, toads, birds (some incredibly noise and others just huge) and spiders.
Culture - Temples and shrines, you don't have to go far to see these. Some are more famous than others but I found myself drawn to the smaller, more rustic examples, usually in the backend of nowhere, and with not a soul to disturb my wanderings. Festivals, music, art - OMG everywhere you go the country is oozing all this stuff, don't expect to do too much on your first visit.
Wrapping up - Japan has been absolutely amazing, the best place we've visited this trip, can't recommend it enough to both cyclists and general tourists. It was a bit of a slow burn for me, I don't know why, maybe the initial culture shock took time to wear off, but wear off it did. Neither of us can believe we've actually left, but here we are, 8.5 hours later on the big silver bird and we're in Australia. G'day mate!