Saturday, October 28, 2006

Narika, Japan

Friends: I began my assault on Tokyo at 6:15 yesterday morning, setting out 32 miles from the Imperial Palace in the heart of the city. Even at that distance I was already deeply ingested into its dense sprawl. I felt fortunate to have found a place to camp, and, in fact, seized a spot at three in the afternoon, two hours before dark, the earliest I had curtailed my cycling other than to attend the kiernan racing back on Hokkaido. I wasn't sure if I was being a coward to quit so early or if I was wisely listening to my instincts. My instincts were right again.

I hadn't seen any likely camping for miles, as I was swallowed up by the sprawl much sooner than I anticipated. It was only looking bleaker and bleaker as I closed in on Yokahama, population three-and-a-half million and 20 miles from the Imperial Palace. I was tempted to keep going to Yokahama with the possibility of free Internet in the lobby of the Landmark Skyscraper, the tallest in Japan. It was only ten miles further, but if I succeeded in finding the Internet, it would most likely be dark when I resumed my riding. Once previously I jumped on a surprise Internet outlet an hour before dark in a good-sized city and still found a place to pitch my tent in the dark alongside a golf driving range, but I didn't care to put my angels under pressure in this urban environment. I know cats have nine lives, but I'm not sure how many miracle camp sites a touring cyclist can count on.

My campsite this night was one of the more marginal of this trip. It was on a wooded hilltop in suburbia beside a fenced in power station tower. It was just above a children's playground. It was a bit cool for children to be out playing. It was a steep push to reach the top of the hill. It wasn't totally secluded so I waited until dark to pitch my tent on the less than flat nook that amounted to the summit. But it served its purpose. I had a good sleep, interrupted only a couple of times before and after midnight by hard-working salarymen returning home.

I was awoken at daybreak by squawking crows on the power lines above, provoking me into the early early start I wanted. There was considerably less than the bumper-to-bumper traffic that I was engulfed in the afternoon before. I was only slowed by a couple of train crossings, one of multiple tracks. The nearby platform even before seven a.m. was packed with hundreds of people, all wearing the same black suits. It was the most horrifying site of the day. I had to wait several minutes for three trains to pass.

The traffic gradually thickened. That didn't concern me so much. My biggest worry was that the four-lane highway I was on would turn into a superhighway with no bikes allowed, forcing me to find side streets. That could turn my route into a nerve-racking maze. There was a nearby superhighway, so this one maintained its bike-access, though it wasn't the most optimum of biking. It had a sidewalk/bikeway that 99% of the bike commuters and school children were on. There was just an occasional crazed bike messenger-type who joined me on the road. The cars and trucks maintained a tolerably safe speed and only rarely squeezed into my sliver of a shoulder. I just had to get used to the speeding motorcyclists who would come out of nowhere brushing past me and even occasionally turning sharply behind me coming from the opposite direction counting on me to maintain my speed. It was as if it were karma payback-time for some of the pedestrians I have startled as a messenger.

I clicked off the miles one by one, celebrating each as I closed in on the Imperial Palace. It was a relief that I could stay on this nicely-marked highway leading into the heart of the world's largest metropolis. My throat and nostrils cringed at the air--the foulest I had breathed in Japan. I'd had occasional whiffs and gulps of noxious fumes before when a poorly-tuned truck or bus passed. I could simply hold my breath for a moment or two till it had passed. When I resumed breathing the air had improved. When I tried that here the air was no fresher.

As I penetrated deeper and deeper into this morass with less and less concerns that it was going to be the nightmare I feared, I could let my mind wander to other rides in great metropolises and almost shrug this one off. Bangkok was miles and miles of gridlock. The streets of Bombay and Calcutta, other cities of more than ten million, were obstacle courses of refuse and ruts, while this was perfectly smooth-going. Mexico City and Rio de Janerio were chaos, while this was perfectly predictable. Manhattan is always intense and super-charged with speeding taxis.

I could gauge my progress by the train stations I passed, as they were all marked on my map. I was putting off breakfast as long as I could, happy to knock off as many miles as I could before the traffic thickened too much, but it actually seemed to lessen the closer I got to downtown Tokyo, as most Japanese commuters wisely take the train rather than drive. I had gone 25 miles before I stopped at a convenience store for my customary chocolate milk and packaged pancake breakfast.

By nine most people were at work. There was a significant lull in the traffic. I was able to stray a few blocks at a time from my main artery to do a little exploring, though I didn't want to be too brave about it. I did take a couple mile detour to meander around Ueno Park, where several hundred homeless have an encampment and buskers flourish. I spent a couple hours relaxing there and was mildly tempted to put up my tent for the night alongside one of their semi-permanent, heavy-burlap tents.

My next celebration came when I came upon a road sign for Chiba, a city 25 miles away on the northern outskirts of Tokyo. If I could follow those signs my escape from Tokyo would be complete. It, however, turned into a dreaded "no-bikes allowed" superhighway. By that time I was already well out of the heart of Tokyo, though I still had miles and miles of urban mayhem to negotiate. I happened upon a straight roadway that kept going and going for another 30 miles and got me out. Those 30 miles led to patches of agriculture. Beside an apple orchard, I found a small bamboo forest I could disappear into.

Tomorrow I am homeward bound, arriving just in time for the end of the Bears game. Japan has been enough of a pleasure I may just have to return next month and make a circuit of the warmer southern half of the country and island hop down through Okinawa into the tropics.

I am already looking forward to any Japanese film that will be playing at Cannes, so I can be reminded of how much I have enjoyed this country and its people, and learn what lurks behind their calm and considerate and seemingly content demeanor. I know that to a degree they have adopted a Buddhist resignation to their fates, repressing their longings and despairs. But that doesn't prevent them from being incessantly helpful and polite and diligent in all they do. They behave as if they were in a make-believe ideal world. It has been heartening to be among such people.

Later, George

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Kamakura, Japan

Friends: For three days I hovered around and on Mount Fuji waiting to see if it would reveal itself. On the third day I awoke to blue skies, but still the upper three-fourths of the mountain remained cloaked in cloud, as if it were a work in progress whose artist wanted no one to see what he was creating. Fuji has it own weather system, so though it was bright and sunny surrounding it, those on the mountain could be engulfed in clouds or rain.

As I descended it the day before on my bike, I plunged through a range of weather over the 5,000 feet of my descent. There were stretches of dry pavement, but mostly it was wet. I feared a most perilous descent, as there were wet and slimy leaves on the road that threatened to send me flying. Fortunately, there had been enough traffic to have cleared a path through them and with only a six per cent grade and not too much moisture on the road I could control my speed and tightrope through the fallen foliage.

I did suffer one terrifying stretch when there was an excess of water on the road and my brakes weren't responding. I unclipped from the pedals and was ready to start dragging my feet, though at over 20 mph it wouldn't have made much of a difference. But then after what seemed like a couple of minutes, but was probably only five or six seconds, the brakes took hold and I made it through the bend and steered clear of the leaves. The biggest peril was my plunging body
temperature. I wasn't generating any body heat on the 18 miles of descent and I had just barely warmed up from my hike in the wet and cold.

If the road had been dry I would have flown down in 40 minutes or so, but with the wet it was taking me closer to an hour. The cold air and the wind chill my speed was generating were knifing at me, even though six layers covered my torso, all that I had. As my core temperature fell, it encouraged me to take greater risks and brake less to get this over with. I tried to ward the cold off my hands by periodically putting one hand behind my back for a few moments out of the cold wind when I felt safe enough not to have two hands on the brakes.

The surest way of warming up was by riding hard. There was a good climb after I'd completed the descent around the base of the mountain that was just what I needed. Ordinarily I would have shed all layers except one after several minutes of all out effort, but not this time. I needed the next day's sun to dry out my gear, which hadn't seen any sun for a couple of days. As I circled around Fuji to its east under clear skies,heading towards Tokyo, I would give it a glance whenever there was a break in the trees to see if those clouds were lifting. They were inching their way up. I wondered if there might be an alarm or sirens or loud music to herald its unveiling. Many of the towns I have passed through have sound systems that make announcements or play music or sound a wake-up call at 6:30, so it was fully plausible.

The clouds began to break up and Fuji revealed more and more in staggered segments almost like a stripper teasing those of us watching. It would reveal one shoulder and then another and then cover one and reveal its peak then hide it again. The road was narrow and windy and up and down. I was lucky to be on my bike, able to stop at any time for a photograph on the narrow road. I got a shot with a golfers in the foreground, another with a military base, and then with myself taken by a cab driver who had stopped for his passengers. It was much more exciting to have seen Fuji like this, after all the suspense and anticipating, than if it had been clear upon my arrival.

It was nice to return to sea level and camp along the ocean once again. For the second time in a week I awoke to the sound of golf balls being shot. I was hidden in some bushes in a park. Some guy had shown up at six a.m. to hit a few balls. One went astray and actually rolled under my tent. I no doubt gave him a surprise when I rolled it back out towards him.  A few days earlier I had camped near a driving range. I went to sleep with the ping of balls being shot and awoke to them as well.

My calves were tight from my hike up Fuji, exercise they haven't had. They've had a bit of a rest here in Kamakura, as I spent a day wandering among various complexes of temples in this former capital city of Japan 40 miles south of Tokyo. There were hoards of tourists and pilgrims and school children, mostly Japanese, but now that I'm closing in on Tokyo there were a few foreigners sprinkled in, the most I have seen. I was getting a small taste of Kyoto and its 2,000 temples. One thing Kyoto doesn't have that Kamakura does, is the Daibutsu--a 45-foot high, 121-ton bronze Buddha from 1252. For a small fee, one can climb up into its head. It was enclosed for 250 years, until a tsunami swept away its enclosure.

And for my final act, I will attempt to ride through Tokyo. It took the British cyclist and writer Josie Dew three days to navigate her way through the urban mayhem starting over 20 miles away in Yokahama, Japan's second largest city with three-and-a-half million people. I'm not sure if there is a main road I can stick to or if I will have to pick and choose my way, as evidently Josie opted to do. But she fancies herself a humorist and may have exaggerated.

Later, George

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Mount Fuji

Friends: For thirty minutes or so I had the snow-doffed summit of Fuji in my sights, some 3,000 vertical feet nearly straight up. It finally came into view after I had been hiking for an hour, finally emerging from a bank of clouds that had been smothering me and my view.

I hadn't anticipated hiking all the way to its 12,000 foot summit when I set out at 8:15 this morning, but now I began to consider this seeming window of opportunity. But by the time I had gained another thousand feet the clouds began swooping up towards me, bringing at first a mist, then a drizzle, then sleet and finally snow. The sun wasn't going to burn this off. I had been pulling myself up Fuji's rugged volcanic rock side with the aid of a chain hand rail.

I knew my descent would be more treacherous than climbing it, especially when wet. I was well beyond the accepted climbing season.  Only one of the dozen or so rest houses along the way had been open and that a while half an hour. I huddled against a closed one for a few minutes to protect myself from the wind and blowing snow hoping it might pass, but I couldn't dally long, as I started rapidly cooling off. There was no one to consult. I hadn't seen another hiker all day, just the foot prints of some gaijin who passed me in a cab as I was finishing off the last three miles of the climb to road's end on my bike. As the sleet showed no sign of relenting, I knew I had to turn back.

I had camped three miles short of the trail head the night before. I knew camping was prohibited on the mountain, so I didn't want to push on too close to the cluster of business at road's end, where I might have been spotted. There hadn't been a great many viable camp sites as the road wound upwards through a thick forest. But as always, a near perfect campsite emerged just when I needed it--a slight flat space behind a small shed and a solar panel and some bushes, providing shelter from what little traffic might pass on the road. The toll road closed at seven, so it was going to be a quiet night. I was happy to quit biking a little early anyway, 800 feet below road's end and trail head at 7,800 feet. It was going to be a cold night, but a degree or two warmer at this lower elevation. It rained off and on all night. If the rained persisted I had enough food and water and reading material to spend the day in my tent. I wouldn't have objected, as I could use a rest day. But there was a break in the rain shortly before seven allowing me to hup to it.

There was a large parking lot when the road ended and a cluster of restaurants and souvenir stores and a Buddhist temple. At the start of the trail a sign warned, "Attention. Yoshidaguchi Mountain trail is closed from Sept. 5, 2006 to June 30, 2007. During the season this trail is not safety (sic). So we are not responsible for your life and what you do." Another sign said it was 6.3 kilometers to the summit. That wasn't much really, but more than 1,000 feet of altitude gain per mile, a fair amount. The paved road gained a steady 300 feet per mile, a six per cent grade, similar to a Category One Tour de France climb. It went on for 18 miles, three miles more than I had been forewarned. Its length might have qualified it for Beyond Category status. It will most definitely rank as one of my most memorable climbs.

Puddles and wet leaves littered the trail. For a long stretch it was a twenty-foot wide thoroughfare with switchback after switchback held in place by retaining walls. I began seeing patches of snow at 9,000 feet when the trail suddenly shot straight up and turned from volcanic sand and gravel to volcanic rock. I continued onward, drawn by the site of wooden huts clinging to the mountain side, though I knew it was most likely I would soon have to turn back.

As I descended, I alternated between clinging to the icy cold chain and crouching crab style seeking safe foot holds amongst the slick, pocked volcanic rock. It rained all the way down. My Gore Tex jacket kept my upper body warm but my cycling tights were soaked. As I neared the trails end I encountered a couple of Japanese tourists under umbrellas and a dozen or so businessmen in suits and clear ponchos, all obviously just going for a little stroll.

At first I thought I'd hop right on my bike and get off the mountain while I still had some body warmth, but when I paused to jot a note I discovered my hand couldn't curl around my pen. I was much colder than I realized. It was a little past noon. I ducked into the nearest restaurant and ordered a couple of rice balls. I was their first customer of the day. Someone came out and turned on the heater in the middle of a room of picnic tables. I moved a bench in front of it and sat there for an hour trying to warm up. I stuck my hands alternately under my armpits. Even after half an hour my hands failed to warm up. At least my tights dried quickly with the heat blasting on me.

After 45 minutes I was joined by a group of jovial 30 year-old men and women. As has happened previously, they wanted to take their picture with me. Time up at the computer.

Later, George

Monday, October 23, 2006

Kawaguchi-ko, Japan

Friends: After climbing to 3,000 feet this morning to the plateau that Mount Fuji rises from I caught a glimpse of its shoulder through the clouds, taking my breath away. It is a monster. It seemed frighteningly close, poised to take a lunge at me.

Although Fuji is presently obscured by clouds, a ranger at the Mount Fuji Visitor Center in Kawaguchi-ko at the base of the mountain informed me that the upper part of the mountain is in the sun and above the clouds. According to his information I ought to able to see the top of Fuji from the fifth of the nine stations to the summit. It was 15 miles and 4,500 more feet of climbing from the the Visitor Center to the Fifth Station at just below 8,000 feet. The road up Fuji is a toll road. Bicyclists are charged 200 yen. I'll find a place to camp somewhere along the road before it ends some 5,000 feet below the summit, then set out to climb this mother tomorrow, though probably not all the way to its summit, as it is covered in snow.

It is said to take five hours to reach the summit from the end of the road and three to descend. The sprawling visitor center had several videos showing the summer-time mobs trudging up the various routes to the summit. It gets rough towards the top with ropes to hang on to, but much of the way it is a very well-trod thoroughfare with resting houses providing supplies. There is a weather station at the top. If I reach the summit, I could spend an hour hiking around the crater. Fuji last erupted in 1707 and is fully dormant. A 103-year old climbed it and countless children as well, so it shouldn't be too severe. For centuries neither foreigners nor women were allowed to climb Fuji. It was considered too sacred, for any but Japanese men to climb it. It will be very nice to get above the nasty weather I'm engulfed in now--cold and misty. Its the first time I've needed my Gore Tex jacket in over a week.

I'll be looking forward to a sento--bath house--when I return. I visited my second of the trip
after visit with the monkeys. I stumbled upon it by the train station in Yudanaka, a town of 11,000, thinking it was the tourist office. I was seeking information on how to get to the monkeys, just a few miles further. I realized it was a sento and not a tourist office, when I noticed lockers in the lobby and a row of shoes below and down a hallway someone carrying a towel. There was a path of footprints painted on the lobby floor to the entry of the sento that was permissible for shoe-wearers, though I received a small reprimand when I strayed from it. I had planned on taking advantage of the outdoor sento at a small hotel in the park if there had been monkeys hanging out nearby, as can sometimes happen. It was quite a bit more expensive than the train station sento, so with the absence of monkeys, I opted for the cheaper sento.

The sento at the train station was very similar to my baptismal in Hakodate, when I stayed at the Rider House, though I'm still not sure if I correctly followed the proper protocol. I knew enough to thoroughly scrub myself before dipping into the hot baths. The shower room consists of a row of foot high stools each with its own mirror and a nozzle on a cord and a bucket. On each occasion there have been two or three others vigorously washing themselves. I greatly prolonged my shower to match the length of everyone else.

There are three or four pools of hotter and hotter water to soak in. It may have been a mistake to resume riding after soaking in the hot water, as my legs felt like jelly afterward. All my energy had been steamed and soaked out of them. Fortunately my ride began with a 15-mile descent back to the valley floor of Nagano and then flat going for another 15 miles before dark. If it had been the reverse my legs may have collapsed, as they didn't seem to have any more resiliency than a strand of wet noodles.

Now, after two such indulgences, I can understand why John the Bikesmith of Bloomington, Indiana, who has been to Japan seven times, has been so actively encouraging me to take advantage of them. They have been reasonably priced at 400 yen. I've located the local sento here, so I'll have that to look forward to after my time on Fuji. It is so sacred that for a long time neither foreigners nor women were allowed to climb it.

Later, George

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Kofu, Japan

Friends: As I pulled into Joshin-Etsu (Hell's Valley) National Park after 10 miles of climbing, topped by a final mile of super steepness, I was relieved to see one of the monkeys I had come to see scampering in the distance on the mountain side. He wasn't photographable, but at least my 50-mile detour to see the snow monkeys wouldn't be entirely in naught. Obviously I had no clue as to the bounties that awaited me.

There are monkeys scattered all over the southern half of Japan, including the lower levels of Mount Fuji, but this was said to be the best place to see them, a few miles from a major ski resort 25 miles from Nogano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. An added feature of these monkeys was that they there were hot springs in the park that they were drawn to. The many steaming pools and geysers earned this park its name--Hell's Valley.

It was a half-mile hike and climb to the park entrance from the parking lot through the woods
along a river. I didn't see another monkey until I'd entered the park. A short ways down the path there were a handful of the small red-faced simians lolling about along the river, most in pairs grooming one another. In the distance I could see a cluster of tourists, but I was immediately drawn to these first monkeys I came upon. I wasn't sure if it was allowed to leave the path and approach them until I saw someone else up ahead having his own private photographic session just a couple feet from one of the monkeys.

As I strolled closer myself, the monkeys showed no concern or reaction whatsoever. This was amazing. The only warnings at the park entrance were not to feed the monkeys nor to bring in cats or dogs, so I didn't feel as if I needed to be too much on guard as I came closer and closer. The pair hardly payed me any attention. It took a while before they turned to look into the camera, but I got my picture and then more as I meandered over to others along the river bank. But this was almost wasted film compared to the photographic opportunities of the mobs of monkeys awaiting me up by their natural hot tub. As I hurried up, I passed several of the critters on the wooden walkway as if they were fellow pedestrians.

There were about 40 Japanese tourists, all armed with cameras, milling about by the hot springs where nine or ten of the monkeys were hanging out, some sitting on the edge and others submerged to their necks. In the middle sat a mother with one infant nuzzling a nipple and another curled to her side. The mother's eyelids were drooped and she looked so blissed out that I sniffed the air for the scent of cannabis, wondering if these monkeys were dope-smokers as well. A friend back in Chicago, who works in the monkey house at the Lincoln Park Zoo, says
after hours she and friends occasionally smoke amongst the apes, passing them a joint. The apes imitate their keepers drawing on the joint and passing it on. I could detect no evidence of that here, other than the occasional stoned expression.

Behind the natural hot tub was a multi-tiered wall with another 40 or 50 monkeys. There were also a handful just laying about amongst us intruders, sprawled contentedly as if we were all one big happy family. They were more tame than your neighbor's cat. And since the Japanese could be counted on to strictly obey the no feeding policy, resisting all temptations, the monkeys hadn't been corrupted into begging or nagging. Some of the younger ones were intrigued by a woman's walking stick and someone else's colored shoelaces, but otherwise they just hung out and let us photograph away. They were as polite and well-behaved as the Japanese. I even thought I detected an occasional bow from the monkeys.

There were several professional-looking photographers with heavy-duty tripods and long-lensed cameras, and a few prowling up the mountain side. This was most certainly a photographer's paradise. These photos would steal the show at any presentation. The monkeys star in the 1992 documentary "Baraka" of stunning sights around the globe.

I was shocked at one point to see someone tossing nibbles to the monkeys. Then I realized he was a ranger. He wasn't wearing a uniform, but he had stood out from the start from all the tourists by his rather disheveled attire. It was noon, feeding time. He scattered several buckets of a small noodle like object. The monkeys were in no rush to pounce on the food. It would have been easy to spend all day just at that one place. An occasional squabble did break out with some hissing and gesticulating, but nothing serious. One doesn't have to fly all the way to Japan to see the monkeys in their spa. They have a live cam pointed at them--www.jigokudaniyaenkoen.co.jp/

My only warning to anyone who has this national park on their itinerary is that they should not visit the monkeys early in their travels, as it will most likely overwhelm everything else they see and if they haven't gone digital, they could easily exhaust all their film.

Mount Fuji is just a day away. I'm eager to see how that compares. It is said to be the most photographed object in the world. Thick clouds lay ahead. If its not raining I can bike up 7,000 of its 12,000 feet.

Later, George

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Matsumoto, Japan

Friends: These Japanese Alps are not misnamed. They are a vast array of stunning, snow-streaked peaks that rise dramatically and spectacularly above the tree line, piercing the sky with their knife-edged summits. They are all the more beautiful adorned by the colorful fall foliage. They could cozy up to L'Alpe d'Huez without any fear of an inferiority complex. They offer a host of beyond category climbs that would have had Henri Desgrange drooling to impose upon the Tour peloton.

The seven-mile climb from Ogimachi out of the Shokawa Valley on route 360 to Takayama was
mostly one-lane wide with a grade of ten per cent. There were mirrors at every hairpin turn. There was little traffic, as most opted for the nearby toll road. I was lucky the descent was a little wider and I didn't have to hold my breath in fear of on coming traffic or be as brake-happy as I would have if I'd been descending what I had climbed. I had Lance in mind, as it was on such a road outside of Nice where he crashed head-on into a car as he was training for the Sydney Olympics. He fractured a bone in his spine, but competed anyway.

The climb out of Takayama towards Matsumoto went on for over 20 miles, was broken by a tunnel and a couple mile descent, and then had a final coup de grace of five miles to over 6,000 feet. That was another largely one-laner at tern per cent that most traffic avoided by taking a long tunnel that was forbidden to bicyclists. The views were so spectacular that at least half the vehicles driving it were taxis. At just about every bulge in the road one had pulled over for picture-taking.

It was on this road that I received my first offering of food from a motorist in Japan. I may have willed it, as I had just been thinking about Thailand and how often Laurie and I had been given food and drink by passing motorists, especially on the climbs, even though none were as
challenging as this. The Japanese are as cordial and considerate as the Thais, but much more reserved. As I was pondering the contrast between the Land of Smiles and the Land of Bows, I came upon a woman stopped along the road collecting flowers. She saw me coming and stepped out holding a can of drink. I had passed her earlier, where I also noticed her foraging. I didn't care to give up what little momentum I had and took hold of the can while bowing and saying "arigato, arigato." But then she held out a plastic bag as well, forcing me to unclip from my pedals and stop. The bag contained a couple of warm brown eggs, as if they had just been boiled. She could well have submerged them in one of the hot springs along the road. They would be my first eggs of the trip. The convenience store sell hard boiled eggs, but at 63 yen, they are beyond my budget.

The woman spoke no English and did not test my Japanese, just returning to her car and driving off as I popped open a most welcome can of carrot juice and drank. I would have cracked into at least one of the eggs as well, but there was less than an hour of light before dark and I had no idea how much further it was to the summit. I needed to get over the top and descend at least a couple thousand feet. It was well that I saved the eggs for later as they were only soft-boiled. Still, they made a nice supplement to my nightly bowl of noodles. The summit came about 15
minutes later and I had time to plunge nearly 3,000 feet and 15 miles through a gorge before turning off the main road to a clearing for my tent along a stream feeding the main river. It concluded another superlative day of cycling.

Enough Westerners come to this city of Matsumoto to see its castle, that free English guide service is provided. One of the volunteers, a 50-year old woman taking the day off from her department store job, was available for me this morning. The castle, dating to 1600, has been designated a National Treasure. There are so many noteworthy castles in Japan that instead
of the usual grouping of three, there are four such castles deemed National Treasures. Only two of its original three moats remain. They are home to swans and carp. This castle has six levels. It was not a residence, rather a place to retreat to in case of attack. There were slots to drop stones on invaders and narrow windows for archers and riflemen. The archery slots were about twice the size as those for muskets. There were displays of the armaments and battle gear. The guide pointed out that the armored samurai warrior looked like Darth Vadar. We had to remove our shoes before entering the castle, but were given a plastic bag to carry our shoes in. This castle had an adjoining moon viewing pavilion. The moon could be viewed in three places--the sky, its reflection in the moat and its reflection in a sake bottle.

My guide said she too liked to travel and had been to the U.S. and Europe, but had never been to Hokkaido or Sado Island. Nor has she climbed Mount Fuji, just viewing it. She frequently visits Takayama, sixty miles away, as it retains its aura of the past, unlike Matsumoto and most Japanese cities, which are thoroughly modern and generic. The busloads of Japanese tourists at Takayama certainly testified to its appeal.

Later, George

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Takayama, Japan

Friends: Ten days remain in these travels. As I meander towards Mount Fuji, I have a variety of sights I can detour to--castles, temples, old traditional villages, a hot spring that attracts monkeys. The tourist attractions quickly grow stale and tiresome, however, and rarely live up to their hype. What I randomly see along the road seems more interesting and real. Taking time to join the tourists is time spent off the bike, where I truly long to be. That elevates and perks my spirit and reveals more about where I am and who I am than anything. Whatever I happen upon and discover on my own gives the most satisfaction.

Several times I've had the good fortune of happening upon a Little League baseball game. Watching kids at play appeals to me much more than wandering through an old castle. It offers as much insight into the people I am amongst and their culture than anything. Its late in the year to be playing baseball, so I may have been witnessing a championship game. With an umpire at each base, that would have been the case in most places, but here in Japan, where efficiency and detail is given priority, that may be how it is always done. There was no celebration at the game's end, just a lot of bowing. The two teams lined up facing each other from the pitcher's mound to home plate and then bowed to one another. Then they each went to the opposing team's fans, neatly lined up, and bowed. They concluded their bowing with bows to their own supporters. I saw no stupendous play, just a lot of hustle and backing one another up. The only lassitude came from the third base coaches, who were also kids. They were very very blase in telling base runners what to do, pretty much leaving it up to them.

After several weeks in a foreign land some recurring site or object will often emerge as something uniquely representative of the country. I enjoy a quick flutter of delight whenever I spot another. They are frequently something commonplace and mundane, something I barely paid any notice initially. But in time I come to appreciate them and detect that each has a distinctive character. They become an object of art. If I were a photographer, I would want to
photograph them and compile them into coffee-table book. In India it was bullock carts and their oxen. In France the village fontaines captured my imagination. I frequently filled my water bottles with their cool refreshing water. Many of the fontaines were part of a fountain in a town square. In Cuba my eye was continually captured by the vintage American cars. In
Iceland I was enraptured by the emergency huts along the road that provided shelter from severe weather. Vietnam abounded with bicycles overloaded with all manner of goods. Australia provided a gallery of working class men in navy blue singlets.

Japan offers several recurring sites worthy of a coffee-table book. One is the neat and tidy mini-botanical gardens around many people's homes. Another is the pocket-sized shrines and temples that appear here and there along the road. Lately, tunnel entrances have been emerging as one of my favorite sites. There is quite a variety to them. Some are adorned with a mini-mural or a painting of a product unique to the region--an apple or a flower or an animal. There is great variety to their surroundings and landscaping. I have spent a lot of time in tunnels here, often minutes and miles at a time, and don't necessarily regret it. Riding through a tunnel is an entirely different sensory experience than being out in the open and in the sun. Tunnels slow time and heighten the senses. Tunnels magnify sound. It is often difficult to determine whether a vehicle is bearing down on me from the front or the rear. Tunnels take me into a different world, protected from wind and sun and rain and they are generally flat, making them easier on the legs. But it is always a relief to make their exit. I feel as if I have been reborn emerging into fresh air and panoramic surroundings and relative quiet.

Perhaps the oddest sites I have seen in Japan, those that give me the greatest charge, are the gigantic bowling pins that stand atop or in front of bowling alleys. They are totems that can be seen from a great distance. When on the roof of a multi-story building, they could be the highest object in a city, a space ordinarily reserved for church steeples or observation towers or TV antennas. They stand so tall and so noble, a visitor from another planet might take them to be an object of worship or reverence, which they might well be. Bowling alleys could be found anywhere, in the heart of a city or on its outskirts in a mall or off on its own. If I go several days without seeing a pin, I feel deprived and make an effort to seek out the local bowling alley, curious to see what manner of pin marks it. The bowling pins are just one of many over-sized objects that populate Japan. There are bears and lobsters and insects and apples and fish, each stirring the imagination. They are all a symptom of the Japanese Godzilla complex and their fascination with the gigantic. Godzilla, that 150-foot tall mutant dinosaur, is by far the most popular Japanese cinematic figure. The first Godzilla movie was in 1954. It was so popular, there have been 27 sequels, each a big hit, ranking among the highest grossing films every year.

There are also some distinctive Japanese mannerisms that I have developed a fondness for. I am charmed whenever I am told "stop" or "no entry" or "not possible" or "go away," especially when it is accompanied by the gesture of crossed forearms held against the chest. I never like to be refused entry to some place I'd like to go, but the way I am told lessens the pain. It is often someone in uniform--a security guard or someone working on a road construction crew.

Later, George

Monday, October 16, 2006

Toyama, Japan

Friends: I did as many had before me and left a yen coin at the temple atop Ono-gam, a 600-foot high rock at the tip of Sado Island, and was immediately blessed. Ono-gam is one of the three largest rocks in Japan and it was a steep and somewhat treacherous hike to its summit. The Japanese like to group their exemplary sites and events and other items in sets of three. It allows them to spread the credit and not to give exception to one single item. Rather than identifying a rock as the largest in Japan, it is called one of the three largest. The same goes for other superlatives--the three biggest limestone caves, three most delicious types of chicken, top three festivals, most famous hot springs, waterfalls, spirit mountains, etc. etc.

It wasn't the rock that drew me to Sado Island, the second largest after Okinawa of Japan's nearly 4,000 secondary islands besides the major four that comprise the bulk of the country. Rather it was a gold and silver mine dating to 1601 and was in operation until 1989. At its height of operation in the late 1600s, it rivaled the Potosi mine in Bolivia as the most productive in the world. It was laced by 250 miles of tunnels, some that are now open to the public.

Presently the most fascinating aspect of this Japanese mine is that its many exhibits are staffed by robots performing the chores of the miners--hammering and chiseling and draining and eating and engaging in a ritual celebrating the discovery a new vein, hoping it will be a productive one. The robots are very life-like mannequins, who also grunt and talk. Wherever they are sound, they are accompanied by a sign in English and Japanese warning, "Do not touch the robots."

The mine was just a mile-and-a-half from the Sea of Japan, up a steep incline from the town of Aikawa, about half-way around the 125-mile perimeter road starting from the main ferry terminal. There was hardly any traffic on the road, making for truly idyllic bicycling on narrow roads along a coastline. It was a two-and-a-half hour ferry ride out to Sado, barely discernible in the haze from the main island of Honshu. Sado was formerly a place of exile for politicians and others who fell into disfavor. I could have been perfectly content spending days going round and round the island past all the small fishing villages and patches of agriculture. There are just a couple of roads that intersect the mountainous interior of the island. There is so little traffic that tour guides stop their bus or van in the middle of one-lane bridges for the tourists to gaze over the edge and out to sea. There are many stretches where the cliff sides are so steep, and a tunnel has yet to be cut through, that the road is just one-lane wide.

I had a couple of strokes of good fortune after my pilgrimage to the top of Ono-gam, where a deity resides according to local lore. When I returned to my bike I found my cycling gloves in one of my front panniers. I thought I had left them at the last Internet Cafe. It had been the most expensive of the trip at 700 yen for an hour. The presumed loss of my gloves there made it even more expensive. Finding my gloves 24 hours after I thought I had lost them was good luck. Later that day I experienced a genuine miracle. As I was setting up my tent in a baseball field just a couple blocks from the ferry at Akadomari, a tent pole I lost over two weeks ago mysteriously reappeared. It had somehow slipped over another pole and had remained hidden there for two weeks. It was a major disaster when it turned up missing, almost enough to make me double back 75-miles to my previous night's campsite to retrieve it.

I had splintered the end of one my poles in the middle of a stretch of ten of them that were all connected by an inner cord the night before its disappearance. I had to cut the connecting cord and piece the poles together each night. Somehow I managed to lose one of those ten poles and had to make do with just nine. Not all the pole segments were the same, so it was tricky finding the right order when I went to piece them together each night. For over two weeks I had to endure a lop-sided tent with one ten-pole arch and the other nine.

I thought I had experienced a semi-miracle the night I discovered I was a pole short, as at that campsite I found an industrial-strength hard plastic straw that just barely fit over the end of my poles and lengthened it a few inches. It was the night I camped with Eelco the Dutchman at a campsite I never would have chosen on my own--in a meadow in the open on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Eelco had had tent pole maladies himself when his tent was scrunched in the flash flood in China. He had reinforced his poles with chopsticks. I tried doing that myself, but my poles weren't wide enough to accept them.

With my improvisations my tent was no longer free-standing. If I camped on ground too hard to prevent me from staking it out, it wouldn't hold together. Luckily I hadn't had such a campsite until last night, the night after I discovered the missing pole. I was on a prolonged stretch of rugged coastline with one tunnel after another. It looked as if I'd have to be very creative in finding a nook to place my tent. But then after one of the tunnels there was an open space. It led to the former road that wound around the cliff before a tunnel had been carved through it. The road hadn't been fenced off, but there were posts barricading cars and also a sign warning of
bears. I didn't take the bear warning too seriously, as the terrain was straight up and down. However, if there had been a bottle of urine nearby, I would have sprinkled it in the vicinity to mark my turf. Instead, all I had were smelly socks to dangle from my bike to emphasize "Human present."

I've had a few bear encounters on my tours, one along the Alaskan Highway as I was wild camping and another time in British Columbia when I inadvertently camped near a small town's dump and some dump bear came by my tent when I was gone and nosed his way in
through the mosquito netting and bit into each of my water bottles and my Tupperware bowl hoping to find something good to eat. When he didn't, he plopped down on my tent, collapsing it and pretzeling all my tent poles. Another time as I was camped alongside the Alaskan Highway a passing bear came ambling toward my tent. I passing motorist happened to glimpse it. He roared to my rescue, blasting his horn. He scared off the bear, but he stood guard until I had disassembled my tent and gotten back on the road.

There were quite a few fallen leaves on this former road. I gathered them up and laid them under my tent to soften my sleeping pad. I was happy to have just regained the free-standing capabilities of my tent to erect it on the concrete. It turned out to be one of my better campsites. I was far enough from the road to insulate me from the sound of traffic. All I heard was the rhythmic crashing of the waves several hundred feet below.

Toyama is one of the handful of medium-sized cities that has kiernan bike racing. Unfortunately, the next match isn't until Sunday. The snow-covered Japanese Alps await me inland. Then its on to Mount Fuji.

Later, George

Friday, October 13, 2006

Niigata, Japan

Friends: As I pulled into a rest area early yesterday morning to replenish my water bottles, I noticed off to the side against a curb four full 16-ounce juice and soft drink bottles that must have fallen from someone's vehicle that night--a mini-bonanza for me. As I neared them my heart sank, as one of the bottles was a coke bottle filled with an all-too-familiar pallid yellow solution. Foiled again. Discarded bottles of urine are a frequent item along the roads here, more than I've ever encountered, despite the abundance of toilets at rest areas and convenience stores. The truck drivers, like all the Japanese, are relentless in their diligence to their work.

I first became aware of urine in bottles in Chicago's downtown as I messengered, thanks to the
city's cab drivers. After having been tricked into thinking I'd come upon a bottle of Welch's white grape juice once, I look very closely at the seal and contents of any bottles I find along the road. Most bottles are just partially filled, but there is that occasional bottle, masterfully filled to the top. My grape juice happened in the dead of winter and was frozen solid. Fortunately before it had thawed, my eye caught the word red on the label and I was saved. Wash cloths are another item I see with regularity along the roads here. But like the many gloves I come upon, they
are not a discarded item, rather a lost item from someone bound for and leaving the local bath house or hot spring.

Girlie magazines, along with the urine bottles, are about the only true litter I find. On Hokkaido
hardly a day passed that I didn't come upon at least one magazine. I always stop for them thinking there might be a worthwhile interview or article and that I might learn something. Plus I'm cleaning up the roadside and maybe saving some youth from corruption.

After a while it began to be a problem of how to dispose of all the magazines I was collecting, evidently the same problem faced by those who were tossing them. About the only litter receptacles I see are outside the convenience stores for recycling and its hard to be discreet
there. There are three categories--combustibles, plastic bottles and metal cans. The
combustibles container is often overflowing, with a pile of small plastic bags full of litter
piled in front of it. Japan burns 75% of its refuse and the people seem very diligent about recycling. I had noticed an occasional garbage receptacle along the highway that were on posts so one could just roll down their window and deposit their garbage. After a while it dawned on me I was only seeing them on inclines. I thought maybe it was because I was going slower and paying more attention. They had windows and I could peer in and see plastic bags inside. At last I had a place to discreetly discard the magazines. It was then I discovered they were filled with bags of sand for stuck motorists. Still, they offered a nice place to place my magazines, a treat for someone in need. I placed enough that I could well have started a trend. I'll have to come back in a couple of years and see how well it has caught on.

Yesterday was a day of being misled. I thought I had discovered peanut butter. Among the jams were small card-board containers, the same size as the jams, with nuts on them. It turned out to be some sort of peanut jelly that was almost caramel-flavored. I treated it as peanut butter anyway, spreading it on my bread and adding jam and making a sandwich of it--open-faced though, as the bread is sliced so thick one needs a mouth the size of a sumo wrestler to fit two slices into it. The standard loaf is six slices, lily-white, and priced from 128 yen on sale to 208 yen. I'm not sure of its nutritional value.

I finally found a bowl of noodles with a distinctive and pleasing flavor that I search out in
the usual aisle full of such items. And at 841 calories for 176 yen, it well exceeds my three
calories for one yen buying criteria. It is nice to have something that pleases my taste buds to look forward to, as I had been growing weary of my heavy noodle diet.

I'm often up and on the road by six a.m. trying to maximize the minimal daylight. I occasionally hit a tourist site well before its opening. Like the Sumo Museum on Hokkaido, they are sometimes open anyway. Such was the case with an Ainu Village in Hokkaido, a cluster of the large-scale, Mauri/Polynesian-style thatched dwellings of the indigenous people of Hokkaido.

Yesterday I arrived at a Buddhist Temple that housed a mummy of a famed monk at 7:30 a.m. It wasn't open yet, but shortly after I arrived the caretaker drove up saying he would open it momentarily. It gave me a chance to wander the grounds of small temples and Buddhas and a pond of gold fish and cemetery. When I returned to the temple the caretaker was awaiting me, wearing a black robe and reeking of tobacco. He pointed at my feet and said "shoes," reminding me to remove them, and then ushered me to the mummy in a glass case. It was sitting in an
upright position with legs crossed, head bowed and hands opened upward. It was one of 20 such mummies in all of Japan, 16 of which were in these region, a most holy area of Japan. This monk had followed a procedure of starving himself to death and achieving "Buddhahood in the flesh." The caretaker monk offered me tea and then pored over a map of the region advising me the best way to continue on. I had been hoping to take a small side road but he said it was
gravel and very rough.

Later, George

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Tsurako, Japan

Friends: I am in a nice stretch of tourist sites that attract the Japanese, but not noteworthy enough for the Westerner on a two or three week tour. The tourist offices have all had free Internet, a welcome bonus after finding so few on Hakkaido.

Even though they are not in bloom, the 300-year old cherry trees of Kakunodate are a site to behold, full-bodied and majestic, nobly perched on an embankment along a twisting river, standing in pairs flanking an enchanting walkway with periodic benches. During the spring cherry blossom season they are one of the highlights for those who make a northerly pilgrimage to as many of the cherry tree sites as they can.

Kakunodate is also known for a several block area of historic homes, known as the "Samurai District." The town calls itself "Little Kyoto." Even on a Wednesday afternoon in the fall there were a good number of Japanese tourists strolling the grounds of the many homes, a few pulled by rickshaw tour guides. The gardens of bonsai trees and rocks around the old one-story wooden homes were often as noteworthy as the homes. There was one area of garden plots. It was like walking through a museum looking at one painting after another, each of the plots distinctively arranged with plants and rocks.

It is not uncommon to see such well-sculptured gardens in people's yards as I'm bicycling along.
There are few traditional homes, mostly conventional box houses that could be anywhere, but their gardens are distinctly and pleasingly Japanese. There are also occasional Shinto and Buddhist shrines along the road that provide a nice spot for a peaceful break. Rarely do I encounter anyone else at them.

I've been in apple orchard country the last two hundred miles, many of them unharvested, the tress thick with large, lush red fruit and unfenced, as there is no need to fear banditry in this country of such law-abiding citizens. Rarely do I see people lock their bikes, unless they're leaving it all day at a train station. It is common for people to leave their cars running when they duck into the mini-mart. I thought it was a given that I would spend at least one night camping in one of these orchards, but they have all been small and clustered close to a home, unfit for wild camping. Last night I ended up behind a boarded-up business in a somewhat gravelly
yard that just barely allowed my tent stakes to grab hold. When it started raining at two am I feared lack of drainage could leave me in a pool of water. I did have a little seepage, but nothing drastic.

Miraculously, the rain let up after a couple of hours, though I remained under a thick, threatening cloud cover all day. There are three sacred mountains within 25 miles of here that are presently cloaked in clouds. I'll be camping in their midst, hoping for the skies to clear tomorrow.

Later, George

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tazawa-ko, Japan

Friends: For the first time in nearly 2,000 miles hunger began nagging at me as I was bicycling along, giving me concern as to when the next grocery store would turn up. They had been so plentiful, even in the so-called wilds of Hokkaido, I finished off my reserves of peanut butter a couple of days ago to lighten my load, never really having needed it. I still had an emergency can of baked beans and a bunch of mini-energy bars, but I didn't care to make a meal of them.

No stores meant I was at last on a road with little traffic and no significant towns--route 105 south of Odate to the Lake Tazawa-ko, the deepest in Japan at over 1,300 feet. As with much of the interior of Japan, the terrain was mountainous. The valleys were a rich rice-growing region, with the harvest going on.

At last, after 35 miles I came upon a small non-chain grocery store in the village of Ani just before a long climb. Its prices were a little more than elsewhere, but not exorbitantly. It was equipped with a hot-water dispenser, so I didn't have to wait a few extra minutes for the noodles to soften in cold water. While I waited for the water to cool, I had a rice ball. I sat on a bench in front of the store. Moments later the store owner brought out a small table for me.

It was another 20 miles to Lake Tazawa-ko. At a Shinto shrine along the lake I encountered a tall Japanese tourist who had rented a bike to ride its 12-mile circumference. His English was good enough that I could ask him what the suffix "date" (pronounced da-tay) meant, that is attached to many of the towns in this region. He apologized for not knowing as he was Taiwanese and didn't speak Japanese. This was his sixth visit to Japan, traveling always by train. He said he loved coming to Japan because it was so clean.

After having been here nearly a month, I ought to have recognized he wasn't Japanese, if only by his size. Though I don't tower over the people here, except for the elderly, I am made aware that at six feet I am well above the norm whenever I glance at a mirror and have to stoop to get a look at myself, or on those rare occasions when I find a picnic table and feel as if I'm at the child's table. On the ferry, I only had a few inches clearance in the staterooms. At the Rider House, in an older Japanese house that didn't even have a flush toilet, I had to duck when going through doorways. I knew my perception had become conditioned to the smaller size of everyone else when I saw three Westerners tossing a Frisbee in a park and was astounded how gargantuan they looked, almost grotesquely so.

I was pushing it last night to reach the train station in this town, as I'd read it had free Internet. I took a wrong turn and ended up on a long climb to one of Japan's many ski areas, more than in the US, though few on the scale of ours. Most have no more than a couple of chair lifts and a half dozen runs. When I finally realized that I wasn't on the correct road, it was nearly dark. I was able to descend several miles, but still ended up camping higher than I have anywhere so far. I feared I'd have to wear all my clothes to stay warm. But the temperature didn't dip below 45 in
my tent. I didn't even have to put on the wool cap that I had in reserve.

It was another couple mile descent to start the day and then another six miles to the train station with the free Internet. It is in such a small town, however, that there was not the usual signage to the train station, so it became the usual challenge to find the Internet. Rather than signs to the "Town Center," most cities provide signs to the train station, as it is in essence the town center. Even on the main highway, the sign for the turn off to a town is generally followed by "Sta." for "Station."

Later, George

Sunday, October 8, 2006

Hirosaki, Japan

Friends: Two nights ago the 40-year old woman who ran the Rider House warned me that it wasn't likely I'd be able to take the ferry to Oma the next day, as the forecast was for continued stormy weather. Instead, if I wanted off Hokkaido, I'd have to go to Aomori, on a larger, more sea-worthy ferry. It was twice as expensive and took twice as long as going to Oma, but it would save me 75 miles of biking.

I was regularly woken all that night by a typhoon-seeming rain pelting the second floor room I and five young Japanese cyclists were sharing. But an hour or two before sunrise there was
quiet and the wind and rain had moderated. The skies were still heavily overcast, threatening to burst at any moment, but they only leaked an occasional drizzle the rest of the day.

The 1,500 yen price of the room included breakfast. There were seven of us sitting on the floor around a low table in the kitchen at 7:30 that morning. The other six were all young Japanese bicyclists, none of whom were eager to start biking. When I signed the register for the Rider House, I noticed not another westerner had been a guest in over three months. The person I talked to at the tourist office wasn't even aware of the Rider House, and had to go searching in the phone book to find it. Any traveler is welcome, though it is primarily used by bicyclists, many of whom hop from Rider House to Rider House. This particular House had been in operation for 33 years.

Breakfast consisted of two slices of toast, two grapes, a hunk of tofu, a choice of plum or raspberry jam and a choice of coffee or tea. A TV was on in the background. The lady of the house gasped at the news that the seas were so rough that even the Amori ferry had not been running for over 24 hours, a very rare occurrence. She called the ferry terminal to ask if they knew when the ferries would resume running again. They did not know.

I biked over anyway, five miles away. There were literally hundreds of 18-wheelers clogging the parking lot and backed up for a couple of miles. The terminal too was aswarm with people. I purchased a $25 ticket for the three-and-a-half hour trip to Aomori, though there was no
telling when it would leave. I was told to come back at eleven, when there might be news. I found a place to sit at the terminal and was able to finish "Unbeaten Tracks," a travel book by a British woman, Isabella Bird, who traveled Hokkadio and Honshu Island north of Tokyo in 1880 mostly by horse. She spent quite a bit of time with the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hakkaio who have been virtually wiped out. Only 25,000 remain. Although I stopped at an Ainu Village, a tourist attraction, it was early in the morning before it was open, so I didn't encounter any of the Anius staffing it, nor did I come across any in my time on Hokkaido. They are said to bear a resemblance to Mongolians.

I was joined by a 23-year Japanese man who was driving the circumference of Japan, sleeping in his car most nights. He said he was an enthusiast of American culture, and was quite pleased to learn that 7-Eleven was an American company. His English was very limited, but he was a godsend as he could translate the periodic announcements that were made. It would have been a lot more complicated for me to learn, when at 11:45, after three hours, it was announced that there was a ferry leaving for Aomori. I with my bike could board, but he would have to wait for at least
another couple of ferries before he could go with his car. He asked me the same question that I have been asked several times before--did I like sushi? He also asked me what countries I had visited, another question I have been asked by those who would like to but have not left Japan, not even for Korea, a short ferry trip away.

It took nearly two hours to load the ferry, delaying our arrival into Aomori until after dark.
I had no worries that I could find a place to camp, and I did within two miles of the terminal, behind a shed. I slept a bit on the ferry, as did most of the passengers. Many came equipped with blankets, either to lay on or under. There was limited seating. Most of the areas for the passengers were large carpeted rooms without any seating. A teen-aged girl plopped down next to me and immediately started doing stretching exercises, starting with doing the splits and then wrapping one leg, then the other behind her head. There was a TV at either end of our area. One was showing a car race and the other a soccer match. At half-time of the soccer game there was a brief news cast. The woman news reader concluded it with a bow of her head to her desk. The nearly six hours I spent on the ferry allowed my sleeping pad and a few of my clothes to dry.

I awoke to clear skies this morning and a strong westerly breeze. I'm sticking inland for about 80 miles, where I'm somewhat protected from the winds. It was 25 miles to Hirosaki, where I was able to do a little site-seeing, visiting a five-storied pagoda and a castle from the 1600s. Hokkaido has virtually none of such things. The castle was very modest by European standards--a wooden structure that was simply one large room stacked three high. It was surrounded my three moats and vast gardens that included many cherry trees. It is a popular spot in the spring for those on the cherry blossom circuit. A towering volcano in the distance, doffed in clouds, made the setting all the more picturesque.

Later, George

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Hakodate Redux

Friends: Neither rain, a blustery northern wind nor 48-degree temperatures stopped today's kiernan track bike racing here in Hakodate, the primary ferry port for Hokkaido that I arrived at nearly two weeks ago. Nor did the increasingly surly weather deter me from finishing off the final 56 miles of my race to arrive in time for the day's first of twelve races scheduled to start at 3:19 this afternoon.

I pulled into town over three hours early, as it was too cold to stop riding except for a couple of brief quick bites while standing in the corner of yet another convenience store that regularly dot the roads of Japan. They all have such an array of "Ready to eat" food that restaurants are a rarity along the highway.

My early arrival gave me time to search out the local dorm-style Rider House that caters to cyclists, my first such indulgence. It also gave me time to find a bike shop, as all the rain has partially seized-up my rear derailleur shifter, reducing me to just three options on my cassette. They are mid-range, so combined with my three rings up front I have nine gears to choose from, which have been just enough to get by with so far. If I were truly desperate, I'd perform the operation my self. I've taken a stab at it, but without success. I fear if I go too far, I may lose what range I do have.

Two young Japanese cyclists staying at the Rider House accompanied me in my search for a bike store. I thought I had found just the master I was looking for--a scrawny 70-year old guy with black stubs for teeth working out of his garage. But he had never seen bar-end shifters before, and unlike a third-world mechanic who will dive into anything, he was not willing to give it a try. No loss. If I can't find someone with the expertise to handle it, I'll happily save it for Joe when I get back to Chicago, so he can explain it all, enabling be to know how to deal with such a problem in the future.

Neither of the young cyclists were interested in biking two miles in the rain to the kiernan track. They were going to go to an arcade and play video games all day. Neither spoke much more English than I speak Japanese, though one had a palm-sized computer that he used to look up English words. We all went to a hamburger restaurant for lunch. The bulk of our conversation centered around the sports section of the local paper, as it was largely devoted to the baseball play-offs back in the U.S. It was no challenge finding the kiernan stadium, as it was just off a highway that ran along the coast. I could see its already-lit towering light posts from a couple blocks away. There were attendants directing traffic into the parking lot.

The racing isn't particularly for biking enthusiasts, but rather for those who like to gamble. Entry was cheap, a mere 100 yen, dropped into a turnstile. The seating is virtually entirely indoors in the vast, multi-storied, enclosed clubhouse facing the quarter-mile outdoor track. There are dozens of betting windows and television screens displaying the racers and the odds. A race went off every thirty minutes for six hours. They consisted of four paced laps around a steeply-banked quarter-mile track and then a one-lap sprint. It was about thirty seconds per lap, so two-and-a-half minutes per race.

There were nine racers in each race wearing brightly-colored jerseys and helmets. They lined up across the track with their rear wheels in a color-coded starting gate with the same nine colors in the same order for each race--white, black, red, blue, yellow, green, orange, pink and purple. An identical protocol and pageantry preceded each race. Nine officials came on to the course before the riders and pedaled off on upright bikes that awaited them at the finish line to various stations on the track, including towers at all four corners, to monitor the action. A woman brandished a yellow flag and a starting gun with great flair, and someone else rang a large bell for the final lap.

The riders entered the course from a building opposite the seating area through a door labeled "Fighting Gate" accompanied by magisterial music. They each bowed before they mounted their bikes and rode through the center of the track to the starting gate. Then they bowed again before remounting their bike after it had been placed in the gate. The track, as well as the clubhouse, was a thoroughly modern facility with a high-quality surface, as there wasn't a single accident despite the non-stop rain.

There were no cheers or visible emotion from the 99% male crowd. If the weather had been nice I could have sat outside on one of the few benches that were along the walls. The outdoor seating was minimal, as it would take the spectators away from the betting windows and concessions. I did dare the rain and stood at track side for a close-up view of the action for a couple of the
races. The only other people who ventured outside were those who wished to smoke, though they stayed under cover. There was a large playground area for kids, but that too was outdoors and didn't interest anyone on this miserable day.

This is day 23 of my 45 days in Japan. Although it seems as if it has rained nearly every day, it has only been about every third day. When it does rain, it seems like its never going to stop. But oh how glorious it is when it doesn't. I've only had one case of two days in a row of rain that prevented me from drying out my gear and forcing me to erect a wet tent and put on soggy shoes on successive days. Today's rain was the coldest and worst yet. I'm glad to be heading south.

I'd be in big trouble if I hadn't invested in an extravagantly priced, top-of-the-line, Gore Tex jacket before I left. I bought it more for next year's Tour de France, which starts in England, as I plan on doing my training in Ireland and Scotland and Wales for a couple of weeks before The Race. I know how wet and chilly it will be there. But it can't be worse than northern Japan in the fall.

The Arcteryx jacket has passed all tests, keeping my head and torso incredibly dry even in day-long rains. It has nearly paid for itself already in hotels that I didn't have to stay at and extra miles I have been able to ride. I never would have spent so much on such a jacket if my friend Tomas hadn't been able to acquire it at half-price for me through his connections. I am as grateful for that as his recommendation years ago of converting to a 48-spoke hub on my rear wheel to alleviate breaking spokes.

Tomorrow I leave Hokkaido by the same ferry I arrived on, mission-accomplished, cycling over 1,200 miles on this island. I biked some 550 miles up along the east coast of Honshu Island from Tokyo's airport to get here. I will return via its west coast, trying not to be in any hurry after my big-push this past week (650 miles in seven days) to make it in time for the kiernan racing. Whatever else I see and do will be a bonus.

Now its back to the Riding House and the next door sento (bath house), as the hostel does not have a shower. The sento did not open until two, otherwise I would have taken advantage of it earlier. It will be just the second time I've had an official shower on this journey. Tonight I'll be sleeping on a futon in the Rider House. There are three or four side-by-side on the floor in three unheated rooms. This will be a truly communal sleeping experience. I'm already missing my tent.

Later, George

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Obihiro, Japan

Friends: On day 17 after 1,200 miles of pedaling, for the first time in these travels a non-cyclist approached me and spoke. It was at a spectacular overlook in Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan's largest and in the heart of Hokkaido, not too far from the town of Furano , which declares itself the center of the island. It has an annual Navel, as in belly-button, Festival, trying to attract tourists.

The vantage from this overlook was across a vast valley framed by half a dozen volcanoes, some swallowed up by clouds. I had just completed a gradual 25-mile climb climaxed by five fairly steep miles with the actual summit lopped off by a half-mile tunnel. There were a handful of tour buses stopped. As usual, I was the lone Western.

An older gentleman asked in decent English where I was from and where I had bicycled from. Then he said, "You are great," bowed and returned to his bus, where his guide stood at the bus door bowing to everyone as they mounted the steps.

It is a most honorable deed to bicycle about Japan, even more honorable than climbing Mount Fuji, something every Japanese is expected to do once in their lifetime, but only once. There is a Japanese that says, "A wise man climbs Mount Fuji once. A fool climbs it twice." I sometimes wonder if that applies to a long bike tour.

I continue to see an occasional young Japanese male on a bicycle pilgrimage, not all of whom are well out-fitted for their travels. Some are without panniers, burdened by a huge backpack or a mere sack with all their gear lashed to their rack. I attract little reaction except from the motorcyclists, who frequently give me a thumbs up. The Japanese are very shy. I encountered a motorcyclist at a rest area early one morning who was just breaking down his tent. He silently walked past me to the toilet as I washed my socks at the outdoor faucet. Twenty minutes later when he passed me on the road he gave me a thumbs up.

I rarely turn heads from those in cars, as I am accustomed to elsewhere. It is no doubt further evidence of their extraordinary reserve and politeness. It is a marked contrast to the hearty greeting I receive whenever I enter a small grocery store by the young women working at them, but that is part of their job. The occasional older male owners are not so responsive. I always enjoy stopping at a convenience store near a gas station so I can watch the attendants sprint out to the cars when they pull up. They are truly service stations. They are staffed equally by young women as young men.

Umbrellas are one of the rare outlets the Japanese have to assert their individuality. Rather than the standard black, the umbrellas come in a wide range of colors. I was joined by tour bus loads of Japanese and their colorful umbrellas at various overlooks in Akan National Park, famed for its pair of lakes, considered the most beautiful in Japan. I was not appreciating the five-and-a-half mile climb to Lake Mashu at all. It wasn't particularly demanding, but it had me sweating, something I did not want to be doing in the cold. Even worse, I was not looking forward to a steep descent on wet roads. I was surprised the climb went on as long as it did. I wasn't expecting more than a two-and-a-half mile climb at most, as I knew the distance from the summit to the southern point of the lake was just a couple of miles. But what I didn't know is that the road did not main at the level of the lake but climbed well above it. It would have made for a nice view if it hadn't been so cloudy and rainy.

I passed by Lake Kussharo before the climb to Lake Mashu. Its sands are warmed by some thermal springs, but the rain prevented me from putting more than my hand upon them. Halfway between the two lakes is the hometown of a champion sumo wrestler and a small museum in his honor. I was there at eight a.m., well before its opening, but it was unlocked and the door ajar. The lights weren't on, but there was just enough light to take a leisurely stroll past all its trophies and photos.

I am pushing it to make it back to Hakodate in time for its final kiernan bike race of the year Oct. 7. I have biked at least ninety miles each of the past five days, including my first century of this trip. I squandered 45 minutes trying to find this Internet outlet. It is nice to have my own personal race every once in a while in the middle of a tour. It will be close, as I have at least another 250 miles to go and only twelve hours of light a day. But those flashing red arrows over the road may be my salvation. I took advantage of them last night for several extra miles. I was surprised to discover they are synchronized, all flashing at the same time as far as my eye could see, a most eerie sight.

Later, George