Monday, 23 July 2018

Aomori to Tokyo, via the east coast

23rd July 2018
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 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.

Rustic shrine

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!


Thursday, 21 June 2018


22nd June 2018
Air Hostel, Chitose, Hokkaido, Japan

It seems every 7 or 8 days we have to check into a hotel/hostel because of the weather.  The last time was because I had a urinary tract infection, oh, and night-time temperatures were down to freezing plus the wind and rain were relentless.  Apart from that, we've been camping all around Hokkaido.

We arrived in Sapporo having been well and truly mugged by Eastar Jet, it's going to take a while to get over THAT one I'm afraid.  We had an Airbnb in the burbs, a cozy little apartment, but perfectly formed that had everything we needed to settle into my birthday celebrations.  We discovered fresh crab in the local supermarket and couldn't get enough of it.  For just over a quid we could buy enough crab to fill us both up, or, as I did on my birthday, chuck it in with spaghetti, cherry tomatoes, capers and white wine, delicious, but not very Japanese I'm afraid.

Dave havigha nap in our cozy apartment

We headed out of Sapporo on a mean and moody morning, along the cycle path heading north towards Wakkanai.  It was like we'd been transported back 6 weeks to our arrival in Osaka; Wisteria coming into flower, Rhodies bursting out of every garden and the Skylarks getting their thing on bobbing around in the air, it was all strangely comforting.

Rhododendron, I think
Beautiful Flag Iris on the side of the road #gorillagardening

The western coastline is rugged with beaches that stretch for miles and often not a soul to be seen, traffic is also very sparse so finding spots to camp is easy.  We had heard of Rider Houses but either we have found them and they've been locked, or, we've found them and didn't know we'd found them till the day after.  Rider Houses are all over Hokkaido, cheap accommodation for motorcyclists (originally) but now tourers and people on foot, IF you can find them.  We're going to have another go at finding them when we head south tomorrow.

One of many tunnels, not many vehicles though

We ate local fish and crab in several places along the coast, mostly tiny little shacks that you wouldn't know were restaurants, either that or we've been paying local people for including us in their lunchtime meals!  Deliciously prepared meals, simple, no fancy sauces just the way we like it.

As we moved further north the emphasis is clearly on protection from the elements and wildlife.  There are snow shovels in every home, shop and bus stop.  Refuge shelters for vehicles along exposed coast roads.  Metal barriers for wind, snow and presumably tsunamis.  Flexible outbuildings, concertina-like, that presumably flex when there's an earthquake, and don't fall down.  Evacuation and Safety Zones are advertised everywhere and in the far north there are signs showing Tsunami Inundation areas.  Snow sticks identify deep snow with their pretty red tips and rubbish is collected on street corners from bear and fox-proof cages. 

Beautiful sky

Lunch out of the wind

A shobshfor all occasions

I wonder if these were here 10 years ago

Nobody, however, mentioned Crows the size of a Jack Russell.  The Japanese woman who came running into the supermarket to tell us about the first 'mugging' called them 'Blackbirds'.  They had somehow got into my Cordura bag strapped down with two bungies, dragged out the plastic bag with hard-boiled eggs, a sushi triangle, half a loaf of bread and a new stick of deodorant and disappeared into the sky.  Another time, while camping close to a forest, we had to choose between keeping our food under the fly sheet, thereby inviting bears to come and find us, or, take our chances and hang the food from a tree in something not as attractive as a white plastic bag.  They ripped our Sea to Summit dry bag to bits.  I can confirm Crows love butter, particularly Hokkaido butter (who can blame them, so do we) but they're not so keen on dried spaghetti or raw potatoes.  We reckon they've cost us about 50 quid in food and bags, not to mention DEODERANT, beware the Crows!

There is still snow on the mountains and the polytunnels which grow a wide range of foods protect the most vulnerable by 'double bagging', a tunnel within a tunnel.  Bear bells are a common sound, people have them permanently on their shoes or backpacks, I suppose so you don't forget to put them on when you go out foraging, a common thing to do in Japan.

Snow capped mountains

We've met a few other cyclists in Hokkaido, mostly Japanese, all of them very friendly and with the assistance of Google Translate we usually manage some conversation.  We were introduced to the camera function on the app by Faye and James who we met in Osaka.  Hit the Camera function and hover over the word you want to translate and hey-presto, up comes a whole load of gobble-de-gook.  OK, so not ALWAYS, sometimes it actually works but mostly it just gives us a laugh, try it next time your on holiday, hours of amusement.

A friendly Japanese cyclist

Public facilities in Japan are second to none.  I've mentioned the camp sites previously but in Hokkaido there are 5 star bus stops that could easily become refuges and even bedrooms for weary travellers.  There are full on lodges, with cooking facilities, toilets, heaters and an emergency telephone, which are clean and welcoming, and are there purely to make the traveller's journey more comfortable.  Michi-no-ekis are rest areas all over Japan and we've used them a lot.  What with free wifi, 24/7 toilet facilities and a permit to sleep at them, they are fantastic.  I can't begin to imagine what Japanese tourists in the UK think of our lack of public conveniences.

When you spend as much time outdoors as we do the wildlife we see is inevitable.  We've seen several Hokkaido Foxes, one came into the fire pit at a campsite one evening, just laid down and had a little nap.  Another day we saw a vixen wandering along the road, she had been hunting and had about 5 or 6 mole-like creatures in her mouth, she didn't seem bothered by us at all.  Sika Deer are all over Hokkaido and usually skittish, but they have wandered into our camp on occasions and have been brave enough to get within 50 feet, but blink and they're off, wiggling their milky white bottoms.  The Eagles are also huge here (I think they are Sea Eagles) but they don't mug us like the Crows and the butterflies are simply beautiful.

While we were in Wakkanai the weather changed for the worse it also coincided with my contracting a urinary tract infection, so our trip to Rishiri was cancelled.  We managed to lay up for a few days on the east coast, south of Wakkanai, in a hotel at a Michi-no-eki where the antibiotics did their thing.  The forecast for the coming week was not good, particularly on the east coast which is where we wanted to go, so instead we went inland and headed south towards the lavender and flower fields in Biei and Furano.  We were too early for the Lavender but I managed to find one patch where it had flowered.

Come back in July please

The weather improved and we had some gloriously, sunny days interspersed with low cloud and mist, but nothing like the drop in temperature we had experienced in the far north.  The mid section of Hokkaido is where all the growing takes place; there's rice, wheat, melons (at 15 quid a go), potatoes, green leafy vegetables that look like Chard, but longer and skinnier.  Tomatoes, strawberries, rhubarb, peppers, onions (millions of onions) and a whole load of other stuff I couldn't identify.  It's extremely fertile.  They specialise in dairy farming and the butter in Hokkaido could give Devon clotted cream a run for its money in terms of its fluffiness and taste and we have managed to buy crusty, French bread on a couple of occasions, we were in heaven for a while.

Rice paddies, but oh so beautiful

We hit rolling hills along this route, meandering up and down with forest on both sides, no convenience stores for miles.  Unfortunately the traffic became heavier, trucks mostly, until we hit Expressways and then it all tapered off.  We spotted bear prints by the river one morning, but neither of us was brave enough to go down there and take a close up photo.  We sang a little louder that day.

We are now in Chitose, having our weekly wash, and have managed to wash everything we own ready for the next week or so.  Tomorrow we head towards Lake Shikotsu which is meant to be very beautiful.  Our intention is to wiggle our way down to Hakodate from where we can take a ferry to Aomori.  Oh my goodness, we'll be back on the mainland heading south to meet up with Dave's cousin, Luisa, in Chiba early August.  Doesn't time fly?


Friday, 8 June 2018

Northern South Korea and Northern Japan

9th June 2018
Dormy Inn Wakannai, Hokkaido, Japan
Cool and overcast but the sun is peeking through

The reason we're staying in the lovely Dormy Inn is because the forecast was for extreme cold and rain.  The extreme cold came with a vengeance, overnight when we weren't looking, in the guise of 3c with a wind chill factor making it feel like -5c.  It was then we realised just how far north and close to Russia we are, in fact Vladivostok is to the south of us there are ferries to Russia and all the street signs are in both Russian and Japanese.  The rain, thankfully, did not materialise.  But the clouds are clearing and we're hopeful that tomorrow will be a lovely day.  Fingers crossed.

Five layers of clothing

My last post was from a spa/ski resort in South Korea call Sunbeo, it was raining then too.  From Sunbeo we wound our way up north towards Seoul and eventually Incheon, where we would eventually fly to Sapporo in Hokkaido.  One of the most interesting areas of the 4Rivers cycle path is the Mungyeong area where it feels as though the mountains are getting squished together, closer to the river than at any other time.  Maybe it's where tectonic plates meet, I don't know.  In any case, the river is forced to take many twists and turns and it's all in all very beautiful.

Local camping spot on the river

I've got to hand it to Korean Water (publicly owned body that looks after the dams, bridges and water structures and supply in South Korea) they know how to keep cyclists interested in their bridges.  Many of them very grand and often with lovely artworks, or buildings, often a bit 'other wordly'.

Bridge at night

Another bridge

We were entertained along the way by wild animals and the Korean version of the Red Arrows were training for an event so we got to see them doing their formations on two occasions.  Generally though we just enjoyed the peaceful nature of the path.  Weekends can be a bit hectic, specially if you're near a city, but the rest of the time we had the path to ourselves.  We were able to camp in beautiful, sunny meadows, or, close to the river, only once did we feel exposed to several noisy roads, literally we were between 3 motorways and a couple of minor roads, however, the next day we discovered if we had just gone on a few more kms we would have been in a lovely little spot by the river.

Eventually we made our way to Seoul and the busiest part of the path.  Many old railway tunnels take you into the city and like most cities, just when you think you're there, you notice it's another 10kms to get you to your destination.  Unlike most cities though, the cycle path goes right into the centre of Seoul, making it rather easy and if it hadn't been for the rain we would have been happy peddlars all the way in.

We found ourselves near Hongik University, a very trendy but cheap area of the city, where you can drink, eat and shop to your heart's content.  We did some sightseeing and went to the fabulous Dongdaemum building, designed by the British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. While we were there we spotted some ole Bristol friends, Wallace and Gromit.  Someone didn't do the proofreading!

We didn't make it to the DMZ because there is a strict dress code in place and sandals are prohibited.  Apparently, the North Koreans take photographs of scruffy sandal-clad westerners and use them as propaganda, presumably in a 'look at them, the filthy Johnny Foreigners' kind of way, so we didn't go but we weren't that bothered.  We'd had plenty of American air activity in the week leading up to our visit to Seoul, Chinooks, F16s (or whatever their jets are called) and they all looked like they were on a bit of a mission.  We learned later that Trump had just cancelled talks with the North Koreans.

The Korean Red Arrows

We made our way from Seoul to Incheon to catch our flight to Sapporo.  Incheon airport is on an island, Yeongjongdo, so after getting our final stamp in our cycle passports we headed for the ferry terminal.  As we rounded the corner we found ourselves in a theme park, we thought we'd been transported to Barry Island.  Not our cup of tea.  Once on the island it was the most weird experience.  We had spotted a very large green area close to the ferry terminal, and thought we'd head there to pitch for the night.  It was all rather ghostly.  The 'Beach Park' was obviously new, had all the parking, toilet facilities, playgrounds and water fountains installed, and had been for sometime, but there was nobody there.  The streets were all new but there were no cars and the very tall apartment blocks (lots of them) were all empty. 

Another bridge

As we cycled closer to the airport the theme continued.  Lots of building work, brand new 4-6 lane highways but no people and no cars.  Most odd.  Getting into the airport on a bicycle proved even more tricky because of all the building work and when we were stopped by men in uniform at the gates to what seemed to be the entrance to the airport, much time was spent trying to explain to us it was not possible to cycle to the airport.  We made all the right noises about getting the train but then just carried on cycling, eventually arriving at Departures.

We were flying the next day but wanted to make sure we had everything covered as far as the bikes were concerned, after all, Eastar Jet are a budget airline.  We had purchased 15kg each for the panniers and the t&cs informed us that bicycles could be transported for W10,000, that's only just over 6 quid.  The conversation went something like this:

Me:  We are flying to Sapporo tomorrow and we have bicycles (points to fully loaded bicycle) and we just want to find out what we need to do.

Ground staff:  Just turn up here, and I will check them in and you wheel them round to the oversize baggage (she spoke good English)

Me:  Are you sure we don't need to bag them, or box them?

Ground staff:  No, just turn up here, and I will check them in and you wheel them round to the oversize baggage

Me:  Oh, so we know we need to pay to transport them, where do we do that?

Ground staff:  Here, at this desk (points to check in desk)

Me:  Oh, so we definitely don't need to wrap them in anything?

Ground staff:  No

We'd had this experience 30 years ago.  Nobody used to box or bag a bike back then, they were just wheeled onto the aircraft and we'd heard that in Indonesia the budget airlines are a bit carefree when it comes to bicycles.  Too good to be true?  Of course it was.  The next day, at 0530 this is what actually happened.

Me:  We need to check in these bicycles and our baggage, on the flight to Sapporo

Ground staff:  (Looking rather perplexed, takes our passports) Wait here.  A few minutes later.  You have to go to Packaging Area, Gate A.

Me:  We were told yesterday we just had to bring the bikes here, no packaging, no boxes

Ground staff:  (Smiling at me as though I'm the cutest puppy dog she's ever seen) No, you have to go to Packaging Area, Gate A.

Me:  (looking at the time, we have exactly 1.5 hrs till the flight closes) you mean get them boxed?

Ground staff:  Yes

So off we go, find two likely lads working in the packaging area who do a fine job and charge us W80,000 that's the equivalent of 53 quid.  Just as they're finishing up Ground Staff Lady comes to tell us we're running out of time, yes, it's 3 mins till check in closes.

However, that's when the fun really begins because Check-in Lady is now asking us to weigh the bikes.  At this point we know this is going to cost us an arm and a leg.  

Me:  Why do you want to weigh them?  They cost W10,000 per bicycle (takes out computer with t&cs, shows Check in Lady who is now frowning).

Check in Lady:  No, only domestic

Me:  You show me where it says only domestic

Check in Lady:  Only domestic

Sports Equipment
Passenger will be charged 10,000won for bicycles(including foldable), Surfboards and Wind surfing equipment regardless of the free baggage allowance in domestic flights.

Me:  OK, so show me your international policy for carrying bicycles


Ground Staff Lady:  Still smiling, with head cocked to one side, You have to pay

Long story short, after much tooing and froing about policies and weight, the Excess Baggage charges were negotiated down from 37 kilos to 25, but at W10,000 per kilo it doubled the price of our flight.  We made it to the flight with about 5 minutes to spare.  Ah well, tis only money but we could have done without the stress.


Thursday, 17 May 2018

South Korea, Busan to Suanbo

15th May 2018
Suanbo Saipan Hot Spring Hotel
20c, raining
WON 1500 = £1

The overnight ferry from Shimonoseki to Busan was interesting to say the least.  We had spent a couple of weeks in Japan where the people are incredibly polite and reserved.  We didn't hear a raised voice (apart from some children) the whole time we were there.  Lots of South Koreans were returning after a shopping trip (judging by the number of bags they all had) and seemed determined to enjoy the last night of their holiday.  The noise levels increased in line with the number of bottles of Soju (local hooch) they drank and that was before we left the ferry terminal.  On board we found our 2nd class 'cabin', to be shared with three others.  We introduced ourselves, rolled out our mats and set off to explore the ferry.

After a couple of beers (from several vending machines on the ship) I decided to visit The Grand Bath while Dave decided to forgo the experience.  I was rescued by a Korean woman who, noticing I was barefoot, furnished me with slippers and showed me where to put my clothes before going into the bathing area.  The baths are for soaking NOT washing, so having showered first I got into the hotter of the two baths.  There's no room for shyness in these places, everyone just gets naked and does their thing.  While soaking I realised that I hadn't washed very well at all.  What I should have done was brought a number of scrubs and a selection of beauty products with me, and washed myself until my skin almost fell off.  Next time I'll know.

Later that night we found out just how unreserved the Koreans can be specially when they imbibe alcohol.  We were woken by a commotion in the next 'cabin' where someone was clearly drunk and causing a nuisance.  I'm glad he wasn't in ours.

In our experience the Korean people are curious, outgoing, generous and very sociable. Not many people speak English but that doesn't stop them chatting and trying to help us out.  Everywhere we go people give us food, pay for our coffee, ask where we are from (at least we think that's what they are asking) and want to take a photograph to mark the occasion.  They have definitely made us feel at home.

We are heading north towards Seoul on the 4Rivers Cycle Route, we have a passport and are collecting stamps at Certification Stations along the way.  Most of the route is flat cycleway, along the river but every now and again the steep, sugar-loaf mountains, come right to the river and we have to go over them.  Oh boy, some of them are STEEP, so much so there's no option but to push.  Even going DOWN is pretty scary on a loaded bike.  But all in all it is a lovely route and very easy. 

We are meandering really, wild camping most of the time waking up early, starting late and finishing early afternoon.  The longest day was 90kms but most days it's been 50 or so kms.  We're enjoying the wildlife, Deer wandering into our camp most days, Otters gambling in the river, Snakes (yikes) sunbathing on the path, Voles and Mice scampering around in the undergrowth and sometimes the fish are a jumpin'.  We have camped in the wooden pagodas along the way if it looked like rain and today it's rained all day so we decided to take a day off the bikes and stay put.

The cycle touring community is a tight knit one and with social media the world seems even smaller.  This week we 'bumped' into Ross and Alessia (Rolling East) who are heading south, so our paths literally crossed.  Only to discover that they had 'bumped' into Daniel and Antonia from Germany (we met them at Tree in Lodge in Singapore) in the Pamirs last year.  It turns out that Ross's family live in Melbourne, which is where we will end up after the wedding in August.  Apart from our friends being in Melbourne there's also Therese and Nick, cyclists we met in Greece last year, and, Diane (who wouldn't get on a bike if you paid her) who we met in Singapore.

We haven't been eating much Korean food as we are catering for ourselves much of the time.  The Ramen noodles we had in Busan were lovely but at W18000 for a bowl of noodles and a beer (the beer was 9000) it was expensive.  The best meal we've had so far was in Busan, near the station, a set meal for 5000.  There were only 3 choices, there was a photo of each and a price beside the photo, easy.  Not so easy in places where everything is in Korean and there are no photos.  Yesterday we ended up eating a shed load of chicken because it was the only place in town with 'proper' tables and chairs, the kind you pull a chair up to and sit at.  Everywhere else would involve two people with very creaky knees, trying to wriggle themselves under a table less than 12 inches off the floor and sit cross-legged.  I would have felt the need to show them the scar on my knee to explain why I was wriggling around like a 3 year old having a sugar rush.

Confession time, I'm missing Europe and I'm missing friends.  While we've been travelling life goes on for friends and family.  One of my besties has been diagnosed with cancer, another has lost her mother, another has lost his brother and while most of the time I'm happy to be doing what we're doing, every now and again I want to be 'home' and be able to give someone a hug, or go out for dinner, or just 'be'.  This isn't the first time and I'm sure it won't be the last, and I'm sure it will pass.  We've got a wedding and a whole load of catching up to do in Australia, and we have to visit Luisa, Dave's cousin, in Japan.  I'm so looking forward to all that.

Tomorrow we hit the path again and if the past is anything to go by you won't be hearing from me again until we go back to Japan!


Osaka to Shimonoseki

15th May 2018
Suanbo Saipan Hot Spring Hotel, South Korea
24c and raining
Y150 = £1

I'm not very good at this blogging lark this time around.  Ten years ago I was writing almost daily but not this time.  Hey ho, it's either in your or it isn't.  Since my last post we've been to southern Japan and southern South Korea, so let's start with Japan. 

We flew into Osaka on a cold and rainy evening in April, we were reminded of the UK immediately.  The first challenge was arranging for the transport of two boxed bikes from NIX airport to our accommodation in the suburbs of Osaka.  Transporting bicycles anywhere in the world is not easy when they are boxed, but in Japan particularly difficult.  NIX is on an island and you can't cycle on the bridges.  There are companies all over Japan transporting baggage for tourists but most of them have a size and weight limit.  After much consultation on FB and the interweb we ended up going to the KABS company where for a whopping Y9000 each our bikes were transported to our hostel in Osaka.

The next challenge was getting ourselves to our hostel, we felt like a pair of rabbits caught in headlights at NIX railway station.  There are always adjustments to be made when arriving in a new country but land borders and ferry crossings seem a gentler way of easing ourselves in.  Coming in on the big silver bird means covering huge distances in a short space of time (great, but ....), so the weather, language, culture can all be hugely different.  A shock to the system no matter how experienced a traveller you are.

We're not used to having to deal with transportation issues as we usually have our own, so it's daunting, particularly so in a country where the language is so alien to us.  We finally worked out where we needed to go and which train to take, and with a little help from Mr Google we managed to buy our tickets, we felt like a right pair of Gringos.  By the time our train arrived, and we were 20 mins into our journey to Osaka, we realised one of my panniers was missing.  I then realised it was the pannier with ALL my clothes, the sleeping mats and our Helinox chairs, my new contact lenses and several other things I couldn't even remember.  I felt sick.  When we arrived at Gate 80 Hostel it was 1030 pm, we were soaking wet, freezing cold and very fed up, not a great start to Japan.  However, to the rescue came the fabulous Yuti, who, at 11pm managed not only to track down an actual person to talk to about my lost pannier (imagine THAT in the UK) but the actual person who had my pannier!  I was elated.  In London the Bomb Squad would have been called in and my pannier would have been toast.

The following day we returned to the airport station where we found the man who had my pannier, he also had a list of EVERYTHING contained within (slightly embarrassing but could have been a lot worse).  It was like The Generation Game, I had to recall and write down everything in my pannier, while he checked it off his list.  He let me off the last few items (a hard skin scourer, a penlight and a bag of elastic bands) and insisted I check through the bag to make sure it was all there.  It's true what they say, it's very safe in Japan.

We had all but missed the Sakura (cherry blossom) but I managed to find one tree in full bloom in the park near our hostel.  It's amazing what illusions you can create with a camera.  Our first few days were very cold but luckily we had anticipated the drop in temperature and liberated some warm clothing from the recycling store at Tree in Lodge.  Even so, it was a shock to the system having to wear socks and a second or even third layer of clothing.

Talking of layers, had we stuck with our original plan, going north to Hokkaido, we would have been heading into snow.  That's when we decided to go south and into South Korea first, where the weather is much kinder to cyclists.  From Seoul we can take a cheap flight direct to Hokkaido at the end of May when, hopefully, the weather is warmer.

Once we were back on the bikes the weather definitely perked up, so much so that within days it was 30c and while we couldn't understand what the newsreaders were saying the images of clear blue skies, with bright sunshine and much mopping of sweaty brows, meant the message was clear.    It was unusually hot for this time of year.

First stop was the lovely Kyoto.  There is a cycle path which takes you all the way from Osaka to Kyoto and what a fantastic wildlife corridor it is.  Between the cycle path and the river green spaces are used for golf, baseball (very popular here), foraging, keeping fit, picnicking and general relaxation.  It's also a great place for cyclists to wildcamp. 

There are literally hundreds of official free camp sites in Japan and they are mapped in a group on Facebook called Free Camping and Hot Springs. In our experience the camp sites are very clean, they have toilets (with toilet paper) BBQ and fire pits, many of them also provide the cleaning products (washing up liquid and gloves!) but there are no litter bins so everything has to be transported out and disposed of elsewhere!   Also included on the map are the Michi-no-ekis (rest areas) where it is also possible to camp.  They are designed for motorists and as such the larger ones have great facilities; wifi, cafes or markets, heated rooms with tatami mats for a lie down, and some even have showers.

Kyoto is where you go to see all that is traditional in Japan.  It's popular to rent a kimono and have your photograph taken at the temples.  You can visit the traditional wooden houses, you may even see Maiko on their way to an appointment.  You can take part in a traditional tea ceremony and see a show, but this comes at a price and we were told the price is very high. 

Japan is expensive when compared to South East Asia, however, once we got over the initial shock it's actually not that bad.  Accommodation and transportation are very costly and seeing as we camped most of the time and we have our own transport it hasn't been too expensive for us.  We were there during Golden Week, when several national holidays coincide so that by just taking an extra day or two of leave you can get a whole week off work.  We camped in several free camping sites that week and it was lovely to see Japanese families and groups relaxing, laughing and joking.  Most of the time we felt everyone was very reserved and shy, except for the lovely gentleman in Hiroshima who, when we told him we were from England, started listing everything English he knew, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, James Bond etc ........ as we were pulling away from a set of traffic lights he was singing 'Satisfaction'.  I'm really not sure what the Japanese people around us were making of that.

From Kyoto we made our way south through the urban sprawl towards Kobe from where we took a ferry to Tokamatsu.on the island of Shikoku, where eventually we would hit the Shiminami Keido, an expressway with a cycle path that runs from Imabari to Onomichi, 80kms across several islands.  I had no idea the islands would be so beautiful, surrounded by clear, blue seas, beaches of white sand and practically deserted.  One of my favourites was Ikuchi, an island where citrus fruits are the main crop.  The orange blossom was just starting and the air was full of perfume, it reminded me of a walking holiday in Majorca many years ago.  In fact the weather in Japan and South Korea is very European-like, we can lurch from a hot summer's day to a cool spring morning in hours.

We visited Hiroshima, a very sombre place, where some of the images of what a hydrogen bomb can do to humans and earth are indelibly etched on my brain.  It's where we met the lovely Drew from California and it was also Dave's birthday, so a picnic and a beer in the park was the order of the day.

Vending machines selling cigarettes, drinks, beer, noodles and coffee abound, these coupled with the millions of convenience stores means we're never far from food and drink, or wifi.  We discovered we can also buy WINE, oh yes, a reasonable Chilean red for Y400/Y500.  Sushi is also very reasonable as long as you stick to the vegetarian variety but, just to confuse us, buying rice to cook for ourselves is very expensive and there's no cheap Indian or Thai rice to be had either, unless you go to a shop that deals in foreign goods, but there you'll pay a premium.

Eventually we made it to Shimonoseki where we would take the ferry to Busan, in South Korea.  More adjustments and moving onto South Korea would be no different, however, it was the number of permed heads which took us completely by surprise!