Sunday, 17 May 2015

between Kyoto and the deep blue sea

The sky is blue when we awake to the sound of birds chirping and a vacuum cleaner.  Vacuum cleaner?  Yep, that sure sounds like a vacuum cleaner.  It gets nearer and nearer before finally we hear an old lady muttering and trying to blow leaves away.  Is she really doing that?  Or is she really trying to tell us to clear off?  Japanese people are very polite and do not like confrontation so maybe this is a not so subtle hint to us.  When she retreats we get moving.  It's all a game.

It's hard to believe, but in the English-speaking Japanese Times we read that yesterday we cycled through Typhoon No.6  It apparently worked it's way up the country from Okinawa.  Thought the rain was a bit heavy.  Today is in stark contrast as we climb over a pass in a blaze of sunshine and descend into one almighty urban sprawl.  We are riding into the region that includes Osaka and Kyoto and in between the unheard of city of Takatsuki.  It takes a bit of pavement riding and then we give the road another go as we are now descending to what seems like sea level.  We are so happy the sun is out again we don't care about the surroundings.

Finally we get close to our destination - we are being hosted by Danny and Christine, two English teachers - and we stop to cook our tea beside the river.  There are plenty of people out for the late afternoon run/stroll/powerwalk/cycle.  It seems rare that anyone is actually socialising with anyone else - no-one is walking with a friend or jogging together - which strikes us as a bit sad.  Do people feel lonely here?  Some look slightly amused to see us cooking our dinner.  Some smile and nod as they pass by.  One bloke flies by on his bike and then turns around to chat to us.  Masa has cycled across Australia.  He seems like he is struggling to remember his English at first, but it might just be that he has so many questions to ask.  We talk and then he sets off again.  A bit later he comes back with bananas and a camera to take photos.  Such encounters are disarming. 

another tea in the park - down by the riverside

We let ourselves in to the flat.  The key was in the letterbox.  The light switches don't seem to work but there's an empty room where we dump our bags.  Danny had explained that they are both teaching and won't be back until after 9pm so to make ourselves at home.  I go for a shower and Gayle sets off the panic alarm.  The fire bell sounds on the landing and all the neighbours appear on the stairs to find out whose being murdered.  Meanwhile I'm hopping about trying to get my clothes back on and Gayle is burying her face in her hands.  "I thought it was the light switch" she cries.  She's too ashamed to open the front door so I have to go out and speak to the alarmed neighbours.  Meanwhile the bell is deafening.   Finally I work out how to switch it off - rip off the switch cover and pull the switch out. Silence.  Gayle apologises to the neighbours.  Stupid foreigners, they're probably thinking.  With any luck they'll think we are Danny and Christine.  We all look the same, right? 

"Hi, I'm Danny."  Danny looks Irish, speaks Yorkshire and has a Scandinavian surname.  We feel instantly connected to him because he offers us tea.  With milk.  A friend for life.  Christine is a a lovely American who clearly enjoys living in Japan.  She's been here about 8 years.  Both of them are teaching young kids and have just come back to work here after time off in the States and the UK.  They've only been in the appartment for three weeks.  Last year Danny cycled the length of the country from south to north with the intention of writing about the journey and Japan.  He's working through a second draft of the book and asks if we could read it.  It's very funny and insightful.  We recognise some of the quirky and puzzling aspects of Japanese life.  

Christine and Danny have mastered the Japanese kneel

We have felt slightly frazzled riding through Honshu and being in Christine and Danny's home is like an oasis of calm.  The typhoon day also made us wonder if we can bear to stay longer in Japan - the rainy season begins in June.  Danny is optimistic - he thinks it won't be so bad.  In fact, he wonders if the Japanese don't overegg the pudding sometimes when they talk with such certainty about the weather and the seasons.  It's almost as if they believe their world is one of fixed certainties, an unchanging world.  It's hard to explain but we know what he means.  One Japanese truism is that Japan has four seasons.  It is said as if this is a unique quality of Japan. He tells us that once he was asked in a classroom if England also has four seasons.  And anyway, Danny only had two days of rain last year on his ride.  So this probably means we face a month of storms and heavy flooding..........

We abuse our hosts' hospitality, chain ourselves to the railings and refuse to leave.  Thankfully they are such a chilled out couple and don't mind if we cook for them - always an experimental activity when you can't quite find what you want in the supermarket.  On one night they treat us to pizza.  It's a decadent pleasure.  But the real pleasure is having people who live here who have an understanding about the country to talk to.  I hope Christine and Danny don't think we are too hard on Japan.  We are critical about so much - and maybe this is because we haven't been able to bounce our opinions off anyone in the last three months.  But there's so much we like here too - and we understand why they are happy to live and work here.  

One of the desciptions Danny uses to describe Japan is that it is like a huge ship sailing in one direction and incapable of changing tack.  It might end badly unless the country can turn in another direction.  If you think the statistics for government debt in the UK are bad you should see those for Japan.  They have a much higher debt in proportion to GDP. But the economy is only one part of Japan's problems.  The ageing and shrinking population is another.  What is incredible here is the sense of conformity and the priority  of group harmony over personal wishes. 

riverside oasis in a connurbation of 18 million

Often in the cities we see children cycling home from school in the evening.  Like Taiwan there is a lot of pressure on children to do well in school and many attend cram schools.  Christine explains how the teaching environment she has experienced here emphasises learning through play - an antidote to the standard rote-learning methods more commonly used.  She describes with sympathy how most children say, when asked, that their favourite activity is sleeping.  When we stayed with Kiyoka we asked her about this and she felt that too much pressure was put on children.  She did not raise her kids this way.  But then Kiyoka is clearly not a typical parent.

After four nights with Danny and Christine we set off, reinvigorated, for Kyoto.  It's a Sunday morning and Danny is off to play cricket.  Cricket in Japan.  Who'd have thought it?  But then I think the Japanese are interested in so many things from the West, America especially, why not cricket.  Danny's team is mainly English and Indian ex-pats and now has a fanatical Pakistani player too.  I don't mean a jihadist - just the kind of guy who wants to bat, bowl, keep wicket and umpire, ideally all at the same time.  I can't play cricket for toffee, but I secretly wish I was joining Danny for a game in the park.  It's rare that I miss much from home, but spending time with these great people has got us thinking about England.  Now then, which way is Kyoto?

can you see it, luv? It's round here somewhere

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

coasting towards Kyoto

We're back on Honshu, the main island, but our plan is to avoid this more built up region and try and cross back to Shikoku, mooch east along the north coast before crossing back at the eastern end to Honshu.  Our first day or two along the Honshu coast is quite pleasant.  It's mostly small towns and villages that have sprawled out over the fields.  The roads are quiet enough and the going good because there are no hills.  It seems the cities are built more inland and not exactly on the coast.  Down at the waterfront we pass some industrial plants, some small shipyards, golf courses and out of town shopping zones.  It's not beautiful and we are getting used to riding the footpaths when the road gets too narrow, but we are looking forward to crossing back to Shikoku.  

we met some Indonesian welders who told us it takes a month to build a ship

The plan takes a twist the day we are setting off for the long bridges crossing back to Shikoku.  We have camped down by a river, next to a golf course and a baseball ground.  It's quiet at night but in the morning we see a couple of joggers and dog-walkers.  An old man with a big straw hat comes along and says hello.  He asks where we're going but when we say Shikoku he tells us that we can't take the bikes over the bridges. "Too dangerous."  We have now realised that you're as likely to hear a Japanese say "It's safe" as much as you're likely to hear an American say "I don't know".  We think that possibly from living in the safest country in the world the Japanese have recalibrated their safety index to such a sensitive level, that even going to the toilet requires a health and safety warning.  Seriously.  In one shopping centre we have seen a specific warning to wearers of Crocs about using the escalator.  (Ironically there was a Croc shop in the mall.)  Anyway, we already have a cunning plan B in mind - keep plugging away along the Honshu coastline to Kyoto.  We check the map.  Er, the coast follows a big peninsula southwards. Okay, plan C - let's just head in as straight a line as possible to Kyoto.  We reconsult the map.  It's covered in green blotches. It's the Golf Course Route.

Following a tried and tested formula, we follow a river eastwards that cuts through the hills, thus avoiding the big detour around the peninsula.  At the end of the day we find ourselves on tiny roads with 15% gradients because we can't use the main road which is a toll road with no shoulder.  Finally we find a michi no eki in the middle of nowhere which is deserted.  This service station has a waterpark, garden and go-kart track but it's all closed up on a Friday night.  We pitch round the back away from the carpark and fall asleep to the sound of alarming grunts coming from the bushes. (A few days later we realise the grunts are actually croaks from huge toads or bullfrogs - they sound like someone practising on a tuba.) The next day we are back on the coast and following it past small industrial plants and grey-looking towns.  It's a rainy morning and the small towns lack trees - there's no room for foliage.  Happily, by the end of the day it's sunny and we have motored almost to Himeji city.  We camp in a small unused park surrounded by houses.  We can tell it's unused - there are weeds everywhere, cobwebs on the benches and in the toilets, and the gravel hasn't been raked.  This really is the lowest of Japan's high standards for public spaces.

Sunday morning softball - a passerby depresses us by telling us the UK election result

At seven am on a sunny Sunday morning we are awoken by babbling voices.  Gayle looks out out of the tent.  "There's a crowd forming at the far end!" she hisses. "Get up.  Get up."  I look out.  A line of men carrying pitchforks and hoes and shovels is marching up the road.  It's an angry mob coming to run us off their patch.  Well, no, it's just a group of elderly residents who have gathered together for their annual "Clean Up".  One old man gestures to us and suggests something in Japanese.   Basically, we're in the way.  The group of pensioners then set about Cleaning Up.  This involves all the women sitting down in the weeds and using a small hook to cut them out.  The men split into a ditch-clearing team and rakers.  Raking looks a doddle and it seems that the most important factor is turning up, rather than doing anything useful.  We notice that the men and women seem to separate and stick together.  We wonder how easily the two sexes socialise in Japan.  When we see schoolkids they are never mixed up - even from the same school, boys with the boys, girls with the girls.

If you're into castles then Japan has plenty.  Most of them were vacated during the modernisation period in the late 1800s and turned into public parks.  The buildings haven't all survived.  Restoration sometimes means reconstruction.  Himeji castle is rated as one of the best surviving originals.  It has just reopened after a six-year renovation, so maybe it's no surprise that when we reach the train station there's a busy flow of tourists coming and going between the perfectly located station, along a boulevard, to the castle at the northern end.  Bright white, from the station the castle looks like a wedding cake.  We sit outside the tourist office on the pavement to access the free wi-fi.  It's tedious but we need to sort out accomodation in Kyoto.  Later we go up to the castle and crowd watch.  
almost as good as the crowd watching

We look at a couple of guesthouses but the rooms are windowless closets so it's really without much consideration that we head to the central park in the evening to cook our tea and pitch the tent.  We give up our first choice pitch when we notice a few cars cruising around and a couple of police cars.  It's rare to see the police out and about, so seeing them glide past twice in half an hour sends us looking on the other side of the park.  We're not too concerned about the police finding us camping, but I am still not carrying my passport.  We're not sure of the crime rate in Japan - ex-pats tell us how they never lock their houses - but one thing we do know is that if you get arrested in Japan then you are Going Down.  Get this Detective Maclintock: Japan has a 99% conviction rate.  Most suspects arrested make a confession.  This might be because the police can incarcerate you for 23 days without access to legal representation.  Apparently most confessions are made to avoid more shame being brought on the family. There is also the widely-accepted belief in Japanese society that the judiciary and police never make mistakes.  As a cycle tourist without a passport I have stopped shooting red lights or waving the V sign in road rage just in case.

We're Watching You - ostensibly a warning to fly-tippers but maybe to others too...

At the end of one day that has been spent flitting from one town to the next we head towards a park marked on our map.  If it's on the map we know it'll be big, but nothing quite prepares us for the Hyogo Disaster Management Centre Park.  It's spread over a large hill and at it's apex there is a huge covered structure that looks like something out of James Bond.  A sign tells us it's the indoor tennis arena - but it looks like a nuclear weapons command base.  The park has golf, football and baseball grounds plus a running track.  It seems endless.  The car park is massive and empty bar the few cars of locals out for an evening run or walk.  We camp behind an empty building in a picnic area where there are signs warning us about snakes and a particular type of spider with distinctive markings.  I am thus unalarmed when I see such a spider on the tent only seconds after pitching.  It is quickly flattened.  We wash in a brand new toilet block.  The place strikes us as quite mysterious as we are not that close to Kobe, the nearest city, so who are the facilties for?  Only later do we read about how the Red Cross in 26 other countries raised funds for victims of the Kobe earthquake back in the 1990's.  The funds were controversially used to build this sports park/relief centre, although I doubt that many Japanese know much about this.  The media here seems rather tepid - news agencies get put under pressure from the government and rightwing organisations - so you are more likely to hear about another child being born to the British royal family than any big corruption scandal or cover-up.  The park has never been used in an emergency but it's there, just in case.

Japan's infrastructure is failing to keep pace with its ageing population
The next day we are expecting rain, so are quite happy to be able to pack up with everything dry.  But from 9 o'clock onwards it all gets a bit messy.  We find shelter mid-morning at a michi no eki that is really just a restaurant, shop and toilets.  Still, there's a settee under cover so we bagsy it.  After lunch we head off just as the rain eases.  The rain then gets heavier, of course.  We push on.  Mid-afternoon, soaking wet, we stop in a convenience store that has seats.  This is not so common in Japan - most punters sit in their vehicles in the car park drinking or eating their purchases.  We dry off a little but the rain continues.  Checking the map for possible camp spots we note a park in a hot spring area with lots of hotels.  But getting there turns into a marathon struggle up steep hills in horrendous rain.  To make matters worse, there's a wind with it.  I'm sick of it.  Gayle's sick of it.  

like meeting an old friend

Finally we reach Arima - a nook in a mountainside jammed tight with some quite ugly hotels.  This is spa territory - lots of five star establishments and no atmosphere.  To get to the park we have to push up a ridiculously steep road, rain still pouring.  But hallelujah, there's a toilet block, there's an arbor and there's space for our tent under the roof.  We cook our tea and toast our good fortune with a bottle of vino.  The only trouble is that while we eat the floor of our shelter starts to fill up with water as the wind blows the rain in.  It seems our good fortune has run out.  I had noticed steps up to a shrine when we arrived, so I suggest to Gayle that tonight we bed down inside the shrine.  She immediately agrees and we go and check out the place.  But there is no shrine.  There's a locked-up building and something covered in tarp - but Gayle sees that there is actually a very dry space under a concrete roof next to the tarp.  We can't believe our luck.  We fetch our bikes and pitch the tent bone dry.  What a day.