Current Location: Nagoya (Japan s third largest city, 300km south of Tokyo)
KM cycled: 7,300
KM to home: 17,700 (at least – a bit of a detour is currently fermenting –
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair (Robert Frost)
As our boat from Russia docked in the northernmost Japanese port of Wakkanai, I vaguely recalled that as a geography teacher (in a former life) i had droned on to my poor pupils about the important features of this unique nation… composed of 4 main islands (and many small ones), Japan is flung out on the far Eastern edge of the world, a part of Asia, yet very distinct within it. Strewn with mountains, 120 million people are crammed into valleys and coastal areas, and despite being low on mineral wealth and high
on devastating earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, and wars, Japan is still an exceptionally prosperous country – a prosperity earned through hard work and high technology. It is also a country with a rich culture of traditions. Thus was my stereotyped expectation.
The ice free Japanese roads we had dreamed of in Russia turned out to be a false hope… in fact there was more snow in northern Japan than in Siberia. However, we did soon find that Japan is a wonderful place for the English wildman who is in need of some luxury. The train stations stay open all night, are outstandingly clean, and nobody seems to object to the slumbering presence of a damp cyclist. Once I asked some cleaning ladies who were tidying up where i could sleep… without hesitation they suggested the
very floor which they were cleaning! Can you imagine that happening in England!?
As a geography teacher, i knew that Japan was a hot country… a land free of snow and ice!
Our first night in Honshu!
The Japanese themselves are dignified, polite, hard working, friendly, and at times (it seems) a little strange! (the other night in a quiet Tokyo backstreet I observed a procession of elderly people marching about with a blaring loud speaker which appeared to be ordering them around. Every so often the group stopped to clap together some pieces of wood they were carrying…?! I felt like I was on a Monty Python set).
Whilst the Russians demonstrated a very unreserved friendliness (within 5 minutes of meeting a Siberian Russian, they will have asked you ten questions, told you that you are crazy and offered you some vodka), the Japanese are far more shy. Once introduced though, I have been charmed by their friendliness and humbled by their generosity.
Even encounters with the police can be heart warming… Once we were sleeping in the warehouse of a restaurant, whose owner had kindly fed us and offered us this dry, warm place for the night. Obviously not everyone in the vicinity had been informed of this arrangement, so when someone in the carpark saw me clambering down the fire escape wearing my balaclava in the middle of the night (going for a pee) they naturally assumed i was there without permission. Half an hour later we were woken by a whole brigade of
surprised policemen with torches and truncheons (I have got used to being woken up in strange ways now)… rather than Japanese robbers, they discovered us to be heroic English explorers (i like to think)…
On another occasion, when we were caught between towns on a snowy night, a police car pulled us over, and (after an incomprehensible conversation), we resolved that we indeed did not have the correct lights for riding in Japan at night, and so would of course be given a police escort into the next town, some 10km away… we felt mightily important as we skidded along the windy coastal road, a flashing siren illuminating our presence from behind. Needless to say, they took us straight to the train station and told us to sleep there, rather than in our tent. (i met a welsh cyclist the other day who had persuaded the police to let them stay in their empty cell… my future
On Christmas day I eventually stumbled into a Church service, and sat in a pew, straining to understand what the sermon was about. I think I missed the more profound meaning, but I understood the words Bethlehem, Jesus, present, and Jerusalem. The friendly congregation fed me noodles and cake… a slightly alternative Christmas lunch!
It has proved hard to communicate at times (one slight flaw in the plan of my learning Russian and Al learning Japanese, is that i am now without Al, and hence without any Japanese)… i have ended up buying salt instead of sugar, of receiving a thermos full of cold water rather than hot… whilst many of the people I have stayed with have an excellent command of English, the same cannot be said of the average person on the street… I am told that the Japanese spend several trillion yen (thats tens of billions of pounds) on trying to learn English each year, but the overall result does not seem to be that great… perhaps it is because it is a culture which does not like to make mistakes… and trying and failing and trying again is so important in language learning. (i am currently staying with EFL childrens book author Patrick Jackson – do check out his new (and very cool) potato pals series if you are involved in TEFL)
I have fortunate indeed with kind invitations to stay with people through Japan. Eating all sorts of exotic food (octopus tentacles with suckers still attached are actually quite tasty), skiing, karaoke, sitting in hot baths, visiting Japanese schools to talk to friendly (if bemused) students about our exploits in Siberia (and raise money for Viva Network).
In this highly motivated and hard working culture (sometimes described as a weakness for overwork), it makes sense that there should be a place specifically designed for compulsory and ultimate relaxation. That place, in Japan it seems, is the public hot baths, or onsen. It is intriguing to watch the stress drain off the faces of an important looking business man as he sinks into the hot water, the strains, mistakes, failures, worries and concerns of the day, seeping away into the tub.
One night in a small Japanese Karaoke bar in a mountain village with a bunch of friendly middle aged locals, i thought i was getting off rather lightly on the singing front… but suddenly, unexpectedly, i heard a strangely familiar drum roll from the speakers, and a microphone was handed to me… i dutifully rose to my feet to sing (or yodel) GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!
Before heading for the bright lights of Tokyo I (for some reason) decided to cross over from the nice, dry Pacific (eastern) coast, through the mountains… and onto the (western) coast of the Sea of Japan. The sea of Japan was described by Yukio Mishima as `the source of all my unhappiness, of all my gloomy thoughts, the origin of all my ugliness and all my strength… a wild sea`. Well, perhaps it was not so bad as that, but it certainly was savage weather, with blasting wind, deep snow and stinging hail. After some very wild cycling i veered towards Tokyo.
Tokyo is a city aglow with neon, and alive with bustle. It is ignited by zooming traffic and energised by focused people. As i started to peddle into the capital, a January dawn rising over the mountains behind me, I set myself the challenge of counting how many traffic lights i would go through on the way to the centre…my rough total came in at well over two hundred for one days riding!
I arrived in Tokyo to discover that Al had become something of a celebrity… drawing large crowds to his charity slideshows, and even appearing in the illustrious and exotic sounding “TARZAN” magazine (they wisely ignored his request to do a photo shoot wearing leopard skin swimming trunks)!
Traffic director with lightsaber
Tokyo made me feel London is just a 20th Century backwater
After 10 days meeting old friends and new, and feeling the existential angst of endless possibility (and overwhelming responsibility) which comes with being in a global city, i had a sunny ride out of town, with a days worth of glimpses of glorious Mount Fuji… and I have now got the city of Nagoya… which brings me up to date.
Beautiful Mount Fuji (and edge of handsome English Cyclist`s head!)
Beautiful Mount Fuji (and beautiful American Restaurant!)
Beautiful Mount Fuji (and beautiful Japanese Factory!)
Observant readers may notice that Al and I are no longer cycling together… we have been friends since the start of University, and been on many journeys together over the years: by bicycle, hiking and hitching… in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America… we have camped in deserts, forests, mountains, dunes, tundra, and once even in a sewage pipe (unused!)… we have now just survived 4 months of ultra intense, friendship testing endurance across a wintery Siberia, after which we each badly needed some space… (something we probably should have planned to do a while ago?)
Whats more, in Japan, we discovered an equation to describe the experience
of staying with generous hosts:
2 English wildmen
+ massive bicycles
+ tiny/tidy Japanese house
= very full and messy Japanese house
In addition to all this, due to being at different stages of our respective expeditions, we have decided to take very different roads home across Asia…
… I am only 5 months into this journey, and in no hurry to get home… from Japan i will head for Korea, then China, and from there (in a year long detour) island hop south for Australasia, before island hopping back to Singapore and back home west across the Asian mainland somehow … (hence this journey should now perhaps be renamed: Cycling home from Siberia via Australasia )…?
Al, on the other hand, has already been riding round the world for a heroic three and a half years, and (understandably) wants to take a more direct route west through China and central Asia (i think!)… as we zig zag our way south through Japan we will cross paths in major cities and on lonely mountain tops… but then will have to wait a few years before we can exchange stories back in London.
So I have been forced to reassess my goals for this journey. I had originally envisioned a one year peddle through Asia, partly to give Al a bit of company and partly because I felt like a break from teaching and partly because Asia seemed like an interesting place. It suddenly came home to me the other night that my new route is pretty radically different from my original plan…(which had been to cycle with Al all the way, for about a year).
I am forced to rethink why I am doing this trip… I now expect to spend more than 2 years cycling through these far flung places, and I will be alone for most of it. The charity side of things has become more and more important to me, so Australia will be a good place to do lots of fund raising… and I guess this just feels like the right thing to do… things rarely work out as expected and the paths which providence has prepared for us can often take surprising turns … one thing leads to the next, and then, before you know it, you are tens of thousands of kilometers from home, alone with a bicycle, and trying to figure out an interesting way to get back.
Traveling alone, it is actually easier to meet new people, so i think that for both Al and I, we will have a more immersed, if intense engagement with the places we pass through by riding alone. At the same time, I know that as well as meeting many new and wonderful people, there will also be days of loneliness and darkness, when I wish I was not alone. Starting this trip with Al was a great thing. I have been able to learn first hand from the maestro of cycling, wild living, and networking. in some ways I feel I became far too reliant on Als expertise.
… so, I guess I will now get plenty of practice at surviving on my own. I hope and pray I am doing the right thing!
As always, your emails, prayers and donations to Viva Network (the childrens charity i am supporting, who do wonderful work for children at risk in South America, Africa and the Philippines) are much appreciated.
www.cyclinghomefromsiberia.com (just click on the link from this homepage to give money online to help children at risk around the world through Viva Network)
For anybody who would like to receive Als extraordinarily insightful updates first hand, please check out his website www.roundtheworldbybike.com