Friday, July 31, 2009

Cycling Japan: Tipps and Tricks

Quiet back road
When preparing a bike trip to Japan you can use two great English websites: Japancycling is a website by Japanese cyclists for foreign cyclists with great information on all aspects of cycling in Japan. Especially useful is their chapter on free camping because you can print out a Japanese text to show when looking for a camp site. When flying into Japan also check out their airport information on how to get away with a bike. The only item that did not work was their hospitality list: We had contaces several hosts on it but have never received an answer. Also have a look at Japan-guide: Although not specifically for cyclists it contains a lot of useful information, especially on public transport.

Once in Japan Tourist Information Centres are a big help. They are very efficient and are one of the few places where people speak fluent English. They will find and book you accommodation for free and will answer all your questions. Try to make a list of what you want to know because you will very rarely encounter other sources of local information.

When in a city we usually stayed in a business hotel and we preferred the Toyoko Inn hotels. They offered the best value for money: Toyoko Inn hotels are basically in every Japanese city. They are always very centrally located and extremely clean. Every hotel has free internet facilities in the lobby and a Japanese breakfast is included in the price. Often they have washing machines. You can very easily pre-book them on their English website. If you stay in Japan for a longer period it pays off to become a member of the Toyoko Inn Club which gives you discounts on hotel prices, one free stay for every ten nights and earlier check-in time. We just loved Toyoko Inn!

When it comes to eating there is one important thing to keep in mind: Japanese love their food to be fresh! Therefore all sushi and bento boxes are sold at half price at the end of the day. The first thing we learnt is how that red half price sticker looks like! So whenever we came to a new city we tried to find out when the supermarket closes and then came one hour before closing time to get the half price stuff. For me being a sushi lover that was heaven. For the price of one sushi in Germany here you got a huge sushi platter!

Cycling Japan: Conclusion

I absolutely loved cycling in Japan and I can highly recommend it to anyone. The only thing I do not understand is that cycling in Japan is not more popular: In the whole three months bike touring around Japan we only met one other group of Western cyclists and 2 Japanese long-distance cyclists - that was it! Therefore cycling in Japan is a well-kept secret...

Mountain road in Kyushu
But why did I like it so much? First of all Japan is about the safest country I have ever travelled in and that refers to crime as well to road safety. The murder rate in the US is ten times higher than in Japan! Crime and theft is not a problem in Japan. We happily left our fully loaded bikes outside supermarkets and museums and never had a problem. Safety also isn't an issue with free camping. And we were never overcharged in restaurants or shops - on the contrary: When you leave money for tipps in restaurants the waiter will come running after you to give you your money back!

Coastal road in Kyushu
I also felt very safe on the roads as Japanese drivers are probably some of the most polite in the whole world. Climbing up steep and winding mountain roads drivers would sometimes follow us at a snail's pace for 10  minutes because they could not safely pass us. There are no big trucks in Japan either. We encountered a tremendous amount of incredibly quiet back roads especially on the smaller islands of Kyushu and Shikoku with about one car every half hour! But you also have to deal with really heavy traffic on major roads especially on Honshu - but still: Although cycling in heavy traffic was not nice, but still felt safe in Japan.

You see a lot of cyclists in the big cities where cyclists are very well cared for with bike lanes and even bike parking. But Japanese use bicycles only in city transport - they do not go cycle touring. Still, no matter where you go you can usually use the sidewalks for cycling making it easier to avoid heavy traffic roads.

Japan has a reputation for being a very expensive country which we found not to be the case. Although Japan is definitely not a very cheap place to travel it is not more expensive than the US or Western Europe. Supermarkets are ubiquitouos and once you have figured out what to do with all that weird food stuff you can just cook your own meals. Just eat what the Japanese are eating like rice, fish, tofu etc and it will be cheap. But if you want to eat what you are used to like bread, dairy products, chocolate etc than you will pay dearly. Free camping is easy and using business motels in the big cities you will not have to spend a lot on accommodation either. Sometimes you will only be charged a reduced admission fee as a foreigner!

Japanese people are incredibly friendly and you will often be given food and even accommodation. If you are lost or need any help Japanese will not let you go until your problem is solved. But keep in mind that Japanese are very reluctant to speak English. A few words of Japanes will get you a long way!

Festival in Kagoshima
The biggest attraction in Japan though is that there is so much to see and almost everything is new and exciting. There are tons of museums and sights, interesting nature stuff like volcanoes and beaches and of course lots of every day Japanes stuff that is just so exotic and interesting to us like the hot spring baths and just plain restaurants. I realised from the amount of photos John and I were taking how fascinating everything was in Japan.

We spent 3 full months in Japan and would have stayed longer had our visa not ran out. I was very sad to leave Japan and I am very sure that I will come back.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Where have we been in Japan?

I just realised that I wrote a lot about travelling in Japan, but did not talk a lot about places were we have been. So here comes an update on the most important stations of our trip:

After Hiroshima we cycled across Honshu to its northern coastline from where we cut down to Kyoto and Nara. Kyoto is Japan's tourist highlight: Temples over temples, so many that you end up in some sort of temple overload. On top of all that there are also the imperial castles and various gardens to see. We stayed 5 days and still had not seen all. Close to Kyoto is Nara, with even more temples and - believe it or not - a lot of tame deer. They are everywhere, right in the centre of town. And I hope I did not forget to mention: More temples!

Tokyo at night
Then we had a big change in plans. Instead of heading further north and going to Hokkaido, we opted to go to Tokyo and take the ferry from there to Kyushu and on to Korea. The reason for that? I could not get a cheap ticket out of Japan and so we decided to stay a little bit longer and go to Korea. Why not?

Tokyo was good and bad at once. Tokyo is huge - it took us almost a day to cycle into it through urban sprawl. Once in it it was not as bad as expected but there are masses of people everywhere. Living in Berlin I am used to big cities but compared with Tokyo Berlin is a village. One of the main subway stations in Tokyo - Shinyuko - has 60 (!) exits and 2 million people passing through the station every day. Of course I got lost every time I went through it. For me the most impressive building in whole Tokyo was the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. This huge complex was built in less than 2 years. It is 400,000 square meters big and has twin 48 floor towers including free observation decks and a wonderful cafeteria for the 13,000 bureaucrats working there. Berlin's Potsdamer Platz is chicken shit compared with it.

But after 4 days in Tokyo I could not stand the masses of people any more and we took the 34 hours ferry to Kyushu where I unfortunately had to realise that I can get quite sea sick which was not a very nice experience considering that we spent part of my birthday on the ferry. Japanese ferries are great: Beside a free microwaves and kitchensinks, a TV room and all sorts of cheap vending machines they even have a free onsen!!!! (But don't try an onsen when you are sea sick - it makes matters even worse!)

Quiet road on Kyushu
Kyushu had some of the best cycling in whole Japan, but also the very worst weather. Imagine cycling in a steam sauna and that is pretty much what Kyushu is like in rainy season. Every day it is hot, hot, hot! I am very much used to heat from hiking but there I got only dry heat. Kyushu is humid, humid, humid. Even at night you are sweating buckets by just sitting there not doing anything. Combine that with a double wall tent and myriads of mosquitoes and you are in for some horrible nights. If the sun is not frying your brain, then it is raining. It is so hot that you should not bother putting on a rain jacket.

Rain here is not like 'our' rain - rain here means the sky opens its gates and it just buckets down. I thought that the rain on the AT was bad, but that was before I came to Kyushu! One weekend it rained 608 mm in 2 1/2 days - subsequently 7 people died in mudslides. Of course we were right in the middle of it and got nearly flooded 2 nights in a row. We were considering taking a hotel room on the second night but we both thought that it could not possibly rain that much 2 nights in a row.... How wrong have we been.

Looking down Aso-San volcanoe
On the positive side Kyushu had some very nice attractions for us: We saw two very active volcanoes and one even mini-erupting when we were close by in photo position! What an experience! And with all these volcanoes comes a lot of thermal activity resulting in some wonderful hot springs! Unfortunately you feel clean and fresh for only 2 minutes after leaving the onsen.... then the heat makes you sweat again.

Memorial in Nagasaki
Last highlight in Kyushu was Nagasaki with another very moving A-bomb museum, but also some very interesting exhibits on Japan's contacts with the Western world. For more than 200 years Japan was a closed society and the only contacts with the Western world came through an artificial island in the port of Nagasaki where there was a Dutch enclave. No other nationality was allowed and the Dutch could not leave their island. The island has been reconstructed now and made some very interesting and unusual sightseeing.

So now we are in Fukuoka on our last day in Japan and will take the ferry to Korea tomorrow. We are looking forward to a new country, but also feel very sad about leaving Japan. Japan has been a wonderful experience with some extremely friendly people, loads of interesting sightseeing and some very challenging cycling. I will definitely come back!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Accomodation in Japan

Where do we stay when we are not camping? Well, first of all, luckily we are camping most of the time. But unfortunately it is not too convenient to camp in big cities, so we must get some other form of accomodation from time to time. And that can be tricky and/or expensive in Japan.

First surprise were youth hostels. For a single person staying in a dormitory they are not really cheap, but still affordable. For 2 people in a double room it is way too expensive. We had to stay in a youth hostel on our first night in Japan because everything else was fully booked and it was the most expensive accomodation we had in all Japan. There are some private hostels as well that are a little bit cheaper, but they only exist in the very touristy destinations.

Ticket restaurant
Much cheaper are the so called business hotels. We first ignored them thinking they would be too expensive, but we were totally wrong. Business hotels are usually clustered around a city's train station and they contain everything a business traveller needs - from free internet access to trouser press, but everything is squeezed into very tiny space. And in my favourite hotel chain Toyoku Inn (I became a member to get a 30% discount on Sundays) you even get a free breakfast (although it needs some getting used to this sort of breakfast....). These places are as cheap as 40 - 50 EUR for a squeaky clean double room smack bang in the city center - you can't really complain that Japan is expensive....

But we also wanted to try something very Japanese and opted for a temple stay once. Big mistake. Everybody has heard of paper thin walls, haven't you? Unfortunately, here they exist literally. The sliding doors are just made out of paper - nothing else. And although the temple hostel was actually quite quiet, we could hear our neighbours whispering. So much for privacy. The same applies for ryokan, so called Japanes guest houses. Very nice to look at, but no sound proofing whatsoever.

Tatami floor
One last thing that took getting used to. Many times you have a choice between a Western room with a bed and a so called Japanese or tatami room. That means that there is no bed and the floor consists of straw mats (tatami). During the day you can use the whole room and at night you roll out a futon and sleep on it. Sounds very idyllic, but is very hard on your back if you are not used to sitting on the floor all the time.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Along the road in Japan

Cycling along roads in Japan can be full of surprises and there is usually something interesting to see:

First of all you are never far from a drink in Japan. There are soft drink vending machines everywhere - and I am not exaggerating here. At least every km or so you come across them. And because Japan is a country where everyone obeys the rules they are never ever vandalised, but work! And the biggest surprise: The drinks are not even overpriced either.

But drinks is not the only thing you can buy in a vending machine: We have seen machines selling fish bait, sushi, batteries, flowers and most interesting: porn magazines and DVD's. No joke again: We came across a monstrous agglomaration of porn vending machines right in the middle of nowhere on a quiet country road. And again: The merchandise was not exactly overpriced either. These porn vending machines lead to another surprising road find: You will find discarded porn magazines and DVD's all along roads as well....

Another typical Japanese job seems to be - a flag waver! In Europe and the US road works are usually guarded by mobile traffic lights leading to all sorts of traffic jams. Not so in Japan: Itis very rare to see traffic lights around road works - instead there are real live flag wavers. No matter whether it rains or the sun is frying your brain: They are standing there stoically and happily waving traffic around dressed in a smart (and way too hot uniform) waving a red/white flag or flourescent stick. And even better: Everybody obeys them!

Result: We have never seen a major traffic jam around road works here. But sometimes there are more flag wavers than construction workers and it also takes some time to get used to being bowed at by them. One even was so friendly as to invite us to a cold drink - out of the drink vending machine of course! And by the way: These people do not only work at road works, but you see them at all major car parks of supermarkets or gambling halls and they also lead you out of gas stations.

Also ubiquitous in Japan are the tunnels. I thought they have a lot of tunnels in Switzerland, but I was wrong..... Our record so far: 20 tunnels in 40 km ranging from 200 m to 2,1 km!!! A lot of these tunnels even have bike paths or at least decent lighting, but I have to admit that after 20 tunnels I was a little bit shaken. And by the way: 2 km of tunnel is nothing special here..... I am very happy to have an automatic light sensor on my bike. I know it is a rather kinky feature, but with all these tunnels it is very handy. The sensor realizes that it is dark and automatically switches on the light.... Great!

Another source of constant joy are Japanes road signs that more resemble comics. My favourite one is the one warning you of rock slides in form of a mountain spitting rocks at cars.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Weird sightseeing

The most obvious sightseeing spots in Japan are the ubiquitous temples, castles and museums, but after a while you can get really fed up with all these temples and shrines and so I decided to throw in a couple of weird sightseeing spots as well.

The first (and most normal one) was Mikimoto Pearl Island. For those of you who did not know (and I did not know either): Cultured pearls where invented in Japan by a Mr. Mikimoto. He made a fortune out of it and part of it went into the construction of Mikomoto Pearl Island (which also serves very well for the promotion of pearl sales....). On this tiny island and its museum you will learn everything that you ever wanted to know about pearls but never dared to ask. In order to create a pearl an object has to be inserted into an oyster's gonad (I did not know they have gonads either) and this is a major operation only 60% of the oysters survive. Therefore they are well rested before the operation in an "stress-free environment", before they are placed into a sort of oyster gynacological chair, forced open and have this object inserted. To help them recover they are placed into "relaxation pools" before they are kept 2 more years in the ocean alternating between their summer and winter residence and then - they are harvested! You could also see female divers clad in some sort of white cotton dress from head to toe (including a bonnet) - and they dive in that thing! I was very much impressed by all that, but still not tempted to buy a pearl neclace.

Next was a visit to a Toyota car factory. Ever since visiting to Audi car factory on my European bike trip more than a year ago I was fascinated with car factories, so I put a lot of effort into reserving a Toyota tour - all possible via internet! The Toyota car factory is located in a town called Toyota - and that is no coincidence. The guy who founded Toyota was called Toyada - but Toyota sounds better and is a luckier number in Chinese writing as well. As it was to be expected the ride into Toyota was a bit of a nightmare - lots and lots of traffic!

But the factory and museum tour was worth it! In the museum you could see the cars of the present (Toyota is especially strong on hybrid cars) and the future as well as all sorts of gadgets like a trumpet playing robot. And you see even more impressive robots in the factory: All welding is done by welding robots - quite an impressive sight, but unfortunately you are not allowed to take any pictures. After the welding and assembly lines we still did not have enough and continued on to the Toyota Memorial Hall, where Mr. Toyota's life is depicted: He overcame all problems, but stumbled over a workers' strike. Interesting how he built is first car: He just bought a Ford Modell T from the US, took it apart and copied it! I was for sure impressed and if I ever have to buy a car again I might consider a Toyata.

The weirdest sightseeing spot however was a horse radish farm. Yes, you read correctly. Everything is possible in Japan and so they turned a huge horseradish farm into a tourist attraction including free sampling and temple visiting. I must admit that I had no clue of how horseradish is grown and was very much surprised to see that is grows on small pebbles or very rocky ground constantly flooded by running water. I was even more surprised to see what you can make out of horseradish: The samples included even horseradish ice cream!

Wildlife in Japan

Japan being one of the most densely populated countries in the world you would not expect to see much wildlife, wouldn't you? But there you would be very wrong..... Well, first of all there are of course all sorts of insects, mostly of the biting sort of course! There are a lot, a lot of ants everywhere and they can make cooking very uncomfortable. There are mosquitoes of course, but much worse is some sort of tiny sandfly that looks like nothing, but bites like hell. The worst about it being that the bites start really hurting and swelling after one day! The tame deer in the temple city of Nara were another interesting surprise.

Tame deer in Nara
But we had some more unexpected animal encounters as well. In the Japanese Alps one night we were camped pretty close too a road under some electricity lines when shortly before dark we heard something crashing through the bushes. After having been "evicted" only a couple of nights before I immediately thought of a person coming to chase us away, but big surprise: Passing 5 meters away in front of our tent was not a person, but..... a cute little black bear! After hiking the AT I was a little bit concerned about our food now, and especially worried that this little baby bear might come back with mama bear and the whole family, but nothing happened. There were no decent trees around so we could not hang our food anyway.

Next was a snake encounter. We were looking for a camp site on the banks of a big river when we nearly stumbled over a huge snake. I have no clue whether this snake was poisonous or if there are even poisonous snakes in Japan, but the thing was frightening enough. But as the camp sites were equally attractive we decided to stay there - and luckily the snake left us alone. But beside this incident we have seen quite a lot of snakes here in Japan - most of them victims of traffic accidents, but also quite a number of live ones.

Drying fish
I am used to snakes and bears from other trails, but the last animal encounter was new even to me: monkeys!!! To my big surprise there are a lot of areas here in Japan with monkeys - they even have a special road signs for them. But I have to admit that I felt a little bit strange camping right next to the living quarters of a big monkey colony. They were making a lot of noise when we arrived. Though they were not really shy and stayed where they were they never approached us either. To be on the safe side we chained our panniers together that night to prevent monkey theft and in the end there were no casualties on either side.