Thursday, 18 June 2009

Camping in Japan

Japan being not the cheapest country in the world we are trying to free camp as much as possible. But how do you do that in Japan?
First the bad news: Japan is extremely hilly and all these hills are forested, so finding a flat spot can be a big problem. And if there is any flat ground it is either completely built up or used as farmland. Now the good news: Apparantly there is no law against free camping in Japan and the Japanese are very tolerant, so here you can camp in places you would not even consider in Europe.

So all in all we had mostly very good camping experiences: We either manage to find a flat spot in a forest or next to a river or we ask people for permission to camp on their land. Despite my Japanese language course I am not exactly fluent in Japanese, so I have a little piece of paper in Japanese for that purpose. And if you manage to find someone who can read it without glasses you usually get very positive reactions. We were offered to stay in a garage (which we refused) and invited into a house (which we accepted), but usually people try to direct you to a suitable place.

One day we had to camp next to some greenhouses hiding behind haystacks. There was no one around to ask for permision so we just pitched the tent. To my great horror the farmer showed up in the morning before we had left and I expected the very worst... But instead of yelling at us the farmer seemed to be utterly delighted to find 2 smelly foreign cyclists on his property. He could not stop laughing and offered us lettuce and peas out of his green house! Now, that would not have happened in Germany!

Also very handy are picnic and rest areas along roads or tourist spots. They usually have a shelter that comes in very handy when it rains and it rains a lot here! It is very comfortable to sit under a roof and cook and eat while it is pouring down outside and nobody seems to bother when we camp there.

Only once did we run into trouble: We were already late finding a campsite and pitched our tent in a small decrepit park in a residential neighborhood. We had already started to cook dinner when half of the neighborhood showed up to tell us that they did not want us to camp there. They were very friendly, but the definitely wanted to get rid of us. They even showed John a different camp site by car and so we had no other choice than to leave. The new campsite was in a posh park and we would never have chosen that site for camping ourselves. But if the locals recommend it...... they recommended shit, because at 22.30 a security guard showed up and wanted us to leave. How much bad luck can you have in one day? John tried his best sweet talking in sign language and to our big surprise the guard permitted us to stay - but we had to promise to leave before 7 in the morning.

Bike trouble

My bike had been making some funny noises right from the start, but I had always attributed that to non-oiled pedals and after my bike trip through Europe they had eventually stopped.

But the strange noises re-appeared while I was cycling through New Zealand and John's diagnosis was: bottom bracket. We went to a bike shop in New Zealand where they re-adjusted the bottom bracket due to the lack of a new one. I have to admit that they gave me the advice to change the bloody thing whilst in New Zealand, but the noise had disappeared and so I had decided to just continue. Big mistake!!!!

The noise came back in Japan and was worse than ever. And despite the fact that there are a lot of cyclists in Japan there are unfortunately no good bike shops. People here seem to buy crappy bikes and use them until they fall apart. Very rarely you see people on racing bikes and almost never you see Japanese people bike touring. So we had to discover that it is very difficult to buy Shimano parts in the land of Shimano.

After Hiroshima our next big town stop would be Kyoto - unfortunately there is more than a week of cycling in between these two places. The noises got worse and worse and worse..... and the climbs that put a lot of stress on the bottom bracket got steeper and steeper and steeper. On the very last climb before Kyoto it sounded like a dying person scratching his fingernails on a black board in his final death fight. The bottom bracket had come so loose that it was moving 2 cm - and that does not make cycling easy. Even John, who usually has an undeserved positive outlook on things suggested that I should better push the bike up the last climb.

But to my big surprise we made it into Kyoto - John, me AND the bike. And after inquiring in several bike shops we even found one that faintly resembled a German bike shop and even had spare parts - including a bottom bracket. The bike mechanic immediately started working. "It won't take more than 15 minutes.", said John, but how wrong he was.....

Extra tunnel for cyclists
Everything on the bike seemed to have broken. The mechanic could not get the cranks off, then he could not get the bottom bracket in (the old one was completely destroyed - how I even made it into Kyoto will always be a complete mystery to me) and then the light did not work any more. First I did not see any connection between a bottom bracket and the light, but then it dawned on John: The light cable went throught the frame and through the opening for the bottom bracket. By inserting the new one the mechanic had broken the light cable and now it took him forever to repair it. Considering the high price level in Japan I started sweating by now thinking of how much all this would cost. New bottom bracket plus 2 hours of work!!! I took a deep breath when they handed me the bill: 5.000 yen - that is not even 40 EUR! It turned out to be a very cheap bike repair and I haven't had any trouble with it after that.

Monday, 1 June 2009


No visit to Japan would be complete without seeing Hiroshima and so we decided to cycle there. I expected an ugly city and some crappy museum, but was very positively surprised. Hiroshima was totally destroyed by the A-bomb in 1945 but now it is a bustling and lively town again, just 65 years later. Indeed a lot reminded me of post-war Germany in Hiroshima.

The hypocenter of the A-bomb explosion has been converted into a peace park with a huge memorial (very much reminding me of the Berlin Holocaust memorial) and an extremely interesting museum where we spent more than 2 hours learning all the background information. I do not want to give all the details here, but be assured that we got a lot of food for thought.

Interestingly, Hiroshima was also the first place in Japan where we saw other Westerners. In 2 1/2 weeks in Shikoku we saw only 2 other Western people (and that was in a hostel), whereas here in the peace park you see almost more Westerners than Japanese.

Onsen or Hot springs Japanese style

Everywhere in Japan you will find onsen (public bath houses) and they led me to the conclusion that Japanese must be cleanest people in the world. And that onsen is something we should import to Europe!

You learn the etiquette really quickly and most of the bigger places even have how-to brochures for stupid tourists like us.

First of all you buy your ticket. Then you get out of your shoes and leave them at a shoe box at the entrance. You then proceed to your changing room (red for women, blue for men), where you get naked and put all your stuff in a locker. Attach the key to your wrist and proceed to the onsen proper, a big room with 10 to 20 knee high showers and a big pool in the middle. DO NOT go into the pool immediately! First you have to get clean! You sit on a plastic chair in front of your shower and scrub yourself for at least 10 minutes with soap. I don't know about the men, but the women in these onsen are excessive. (Men and women have separate departments in an onsen). You might think they have a wash complex when they scrub every square milimeter of skin for hours.

Free foot spa at rest area
Only after you are clean and all soap is rinsed off, you are allowed to sit in the big pool. Unfortunately for not too long, because the thing is so damn hot that you nearly collapse after 10 minutes. You dry yourself with a towel that you have balanced on your head while sitting in the onsen and get out of the bath. The real posh onsen have a lounge where you can sit in your yukata (bath robe), drink tea and relax before you leave.I think I have never felt that clean before in my life and you sleep like a baby afterwards.

Shikoku and the 88-temple pilgrimage

John and I had arrived into Osaka right in the so-called "Golden Week", the biggest Japanese holiday period. Accomodation was very difficult to obtain and so we had to leave Osaka after only one day. We were headed to the island of Shikoku - 3rd biggest island of Japan and home to the 88-temple pilgrimage. We actually started in place close to Osaka called Koya-san - home to 100 temples in one little town. I really liked the temples but what will stick more in my memory was the excessively bad weather. It was continously raining for 2 days and even John's bombproof tent started leaking after 2 rainy nights probably due to the fact that after so much rain we were lying on a little stream...

But things rapidly improved after we crossed from the main island of Honshu to Shikoku on a ferry. We more or less circled around the island and our route coincided a lot with the pilgrimage route. The 88-temple pilgrimage is the Japanese equivalent to the European Camino de Santiogo. Pilgrims have to visit 88 Buddhist temples and walk about 1,300 km - unfortunately most of it on paved roads, which is one of the reason why I had given up on the idea of hiking it myself. Surprisingly enough we still saw a lot of henro (= pilgrims). They are easily recognisable by their outfit: They are dressed in white (how they keep their dresses white during their hike will always remain a miracle to me, but they manage to do it), have a walking stick and a bell (no, no, you thruhikers - the bell has nothing to do with bears!).

In order to prove their pilgrimage they carry a book and/huge cloth where they get a stamp on at each temple. This is Japan, so you have to pay to get your stamp and it all adds up...

The pilgrims were generally a very happy bunch and we all greeted each other with a happy "Ganbatte" (good luck) when we passed each other. I liked the temples and the pilgrims but I must admit that I am very glad I did not cycle or even hike the whole pilgrimage. In the end the temples all look very much the same and most of the route is on paved roads where even cycling is no fun.

Surprisingly enough we later found out that there are more such pilgrimage routes in Japan, all depending on different Buddhist sects.

We also learnt a lot about Buddhist temples: The temples are usually decorated with hundreds of small Buddha statues, most of which are clad in an apron and a cap and have all sorts of offering before them (including money, cigarettes and beer). We later learnt that this statues are memorials for accident victims and the offerings consist of things the deceased enjoyed while they were alive. And because they will be reborn as babies they are clad in baby bibs or aprons...

Every temple also has an ablution fountain. You pour water over each hand and take a sip into your mouth (but don't drink it - you have to spit it out!). You then proceed to the temple where you throw a coin into the money box (the clingclang is important there, not the value), ring the temple bell and do your prayers after rubbing your rosary between your hands. And don't forget to get your stamp!

Bathrooms in Japan - part 2

I do not want to appear obsessive, but I have to write another post about toilets in Japan - they are just too fascinating and I have just recently discovered more interesting toilet features. First surprise came in a really secluded toilet in a park: As soon as you entered the toilet facility you were greeted by cuckoos and other birdsongs. My guidebook told me the reason for that: Japanese people seem to be embarassed by nasty toilet "noises" and they used to flush the toilet while doing their business in order to drown out the noise. This led to high water consumption and in order to avoid that "nice noises" are played in public toilets!

Second surprise was a campground toilet: When you are doing your big business it all of a sudden disappears with a "clap". The squat toilet had a trap door installed.... But that was not all: The toilet was also equipped with a water pistol. I assumed you use the pistol to clean your private area, but the water pressure is so high that some private parts might be missing after cleaning. So Japanese people are either very tough or they use the pistol to clean the floor after a targeting mishap.

Third surprise came when we actually managed to get one of the fancy toilet control panels to work. When you push all the buttoms in the right order a shower arm comes out of the toilet bowl and gives your bottom a very nice spray with warm water - you can even chose the jet intensity!!!