Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Tough but Rewarding Trip

20 September 2018- Thursday

Oh Japan. When deciding on this trip I though it would be an easy place to go. Little did I realize that this country had a lot of challenge in store for me. I had days with rain, humidity, and very steep hills. There were many moments when I wanted to fire my vacation planner and wondered why I couldn't be happy just sitting on a beach drinking Mai Tais. 

Now, sitting at home, it's dawning on me just how unique, how special, and despite how it may have sounded in my blog, how fun it was to travel through Japan.

Tokyo is Japan condensed into a city of immense proportions. I had thought I would walk everywhere but going 2 inches on my tourist map equaled almost 2 hours of walking. So, with a deep breath I faced the Tokyo subway starting at the busiest station in the city... just in time for morning rush hour.

The subway becomes so overcrowded that men have jobs standing on the platform to push people in as tightly as possible in order to allow the doors to close. I would have taken a picture, but we were packed in so close that I didn't even have enough space to lift my arms. I have audible "oofs" as I was mooshed and squished into the far side of the carriage. Thankfully, by the time I made it to my stop I was able to squirm my way out of the car.

I wanted to see the hundreds of Tori gates at the Hie Shrine, a quiet place set in the middle of high rises and government buildings. I had the place mostly to myself, said a quick prayer that I would get myself and my bike safely home, and left for more sightseeing.
On the way to the Imperial Palace, I passed a building with two fancy Pagani sports cars inside. Later I found out these cars are 1.4- 2.4 million dollars each. I'm a little shocked they even let me in the door.
Around the Palace I was in the right place at the right time to see the Super Mario Karts go by. You can sign up to drive go carts through downtown Tokyo dressed as Super Mario characters, mustaches included. It made me laugh out loud and shake my head about how many things are a possibility only in Japan.

Tokyo was very hot and very humid. I walked as slowly as I could from iced coffee shop to ice cream shop and was thankful for the tall building as they offered shade.

Sushi for lunch and a stop at the well done Edo Era Museum. I found out that Kubuchi Theater, known for male only actors, lots of drumming and sounds made by hand instruments, has been happening since at least the early 17th century. Theaters were huge so acting was over exaggerated and faces were painted white to make them more visible.

A quick trip up one of the sky scrappers to get a better vantage point. I almost saw Mt Fugi (the base was showing through the clouds) but got a better idea of just how large the city is.
My last worry was how to get my bicycle home. I found a box and somehow managed to carry it while pushing my loaded bike through the streets over 1km to the bus station. I disassembled my bike and packed it up right on the sidewalk. I had been so worried about this step, but like everything else, it worked out easily.
I will miss the toilets and the quiet villages scattered in between mountains. I still can't believe such a jungle, full of screaming insects and crickets that sound like bells chiming can turn into a world class ski area. I can't believe the history, the culture, the tradition that exists here.
The traveling was challenging, with road signs in a different alphabet and little to no English spoken in the north, but I made my way. I had help when I needed it, no regrets about how I traveled, and I am leaving with a profound respect for this beautiful place.
Thank you Japan!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Tokyo is a crazy city

17 Sept- Monday (national respect the elders day)
 With the temps above 30 and the humidity above 87% I slowly walked toward the closest botanical garden and tried to be motivated to explore Tokyo. It just wasn't happening. I couldn't even motivate to get up for ice cream, so I spent the morning reading in the park. In the early afternoon the humidity seemed to drop and I began to explore.
 Plastic food lined every street which can be very handy helping you work up an appetite. The city is non stop simulation, flashing lights, gigantic tv's, robots, music blasting from shops and from music trucks that cruise the streets. You can dress up like super Mario and drive a go cart through the city. There are cafes filled with cats that you can play with while you drink coffee and cafes with live owls and hedgehogs.
It took me awhile to find things because not everything is street level. Restaurants that are advertised at ground level can be 7 floors up and today I found a huge food area where you can buy bakery treats, candies, vegetables, meats all underneath the train station.
 I had to try a capsule hotel where your room is the size of a masters and you have to crawl into it. I love it! Much bigger than my tent, there are lockers and wonderfully clean facilities. When

 Much bigger than my tent, there are lockers and wonderfully clean and modern facilities. When I checked in I left my shoes at the door and was given a little bag with slippers, towels, and a toothbrush.

It's a little weird to think there are people sleeping on each side of you as well as above or below, but not that much different than bunk beds and way more private than a dorm room.
 I feel a like I'm walking through a theme park every time I leave my hotel. I'm in the red light district so there are tons of love hotels with their rate options posted for just a "rest" or "full night." Signs for massage with scantily clad buxom women give the area a little more color.
The shinjuku area of Tokyo has all these tiny little streets, more like alleyways where there are bars and restaurants that can only seat 6-10 people. Chicken and veggies grill right on the bar and mixed drinks are cheaper than beer. 
As I was heading back to my hotel, the humidity finally broke in a theatrical downpour with cracks and rumbles of thunder. The rain pounded down until the streets were running streams. Hopefully this means a little cooler for tomorrow.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Last push to tokyo!

16 Sept
 My days of luxury came to an end. Walking around the temples and shrines of Nikko, and staying in one place for 2 whole nights was exactly what I needed. Using my legs to walk through people's wedding pictures instead of cycling was a wonderful change of pace.
 I ate everything I saw including the local delicacy-the skin that forms when you boil bean curds. It tastes like tofu (so it tastes like nothing) and I ate it a few different ways. In thin slices dipped in wasabi and soy, rolled and plopped into a bowl of soba noodles, and wrapped around sweet rice and deep fried. All good.
With 150kms left to tokyo, rainy days, and navigating traffic, I planned to break it up into 2 days. Since there weren't any hotels less than $200 per night in between, once again I found myself wild camping, this time in the very strange park of Koba.
The park looked like an old military base and most of it was head high bamboo and foliage. Now it was perhaps a nature refuge for enthusiastic super boars.

It got later and later and I started wondering whet I was going to pitch my tent. Since the park surrounded a river there were people fishing in every mowed area. Rusty loud speakers lined what looked like an airstrip and guard towers were spaced along what now was a bike path. There were police cars at the entrances and big signs saying the park closed at 5pm. Not the most comfortable feeling place, but this was my option, and the mosquitoes were coming after me in droves so I made the best of it. I tried to pitch my tent somewhat out of the way, and despite being on pavement, the area I found was at least blocked off to cars.
I woke up with the sunrise and made great time into Tokyo. I sat at a river park watching kids play baseball just reveling in the fact that I had ridden my bike from sapporo to tokyo.
a short distance to my hotel took me over 2 hours to navigate. I was unused to the amount of people that are just walking around everywhere. Some food and a beer gave me the sustenance to brave the hoards, track down a bike box and book a bus ticket to the airport for the 19th. Long, tiring, but successful day.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Hot springs, mountains, castles, temples, oh my!

13 Sept
 Up to more ski areas! I decided to go up to Mt Zao, a ski area and onsen village. I knew it would be a step grind yup there so I found a camp ground almost up at the summit.
Once I got there I found the campground was closed, so I pitched my tent on the porch of a bungalow and watched a man fishing for the rest of the evening. Once it gay dark, a heavy mist rolled in, so thick I couldn't see across the lake. I feel asleep early with plans to ride up and catch an early morning onsen.

 Always at the top of a hill, the onsen was fabulous! A short walk down stairs and I was in my own heavenly pool of milky water that soothed sore muscles and turned my silver rings black.

I had the outdoor pools to myself for most of my soak. I have bathed more on this trip than I regularly do at home, not that it helps when I swest so much every day.
A zippy ride down through the cedar forests back to town and back to my southward trudge.

 My campground for the night was once again closed. This time there was a sign saying that there had been a bear seen on July 25th and so the camp was closed for the rest of the season. Angry bear signs were posted and once again I had a nice quiet place to spend the night.
I needed a new bike lock since I forgot to buckle mine down after one of my pit stops. I stopped at a tourist info station and the woman called around to find a shop for me. I ended up getting picked up in the owner's truck and brought to his shop (also his house) where I was able to buy a new baby pink bike lock. He then invited me in for tea and much, much later, sent me off with cup o noodles for dinner.

Kitikata, a small town known for its brick and mud store houses was a nice coffee stop before heading up into the mountains to Bandasahi national park.
 The plateau was created when a volcano blew and now is full of little lakes and hiking trails. I walked the Gosheki Ponds trail, where every pond along the way was full of koi and a different shade of blue or green.

 I camped next to a beautiful lake and was up with the sunrise and 48 degrees-by far the coolest temps of my trip.

 By 9am, the temperature was back up to 75 and humid. I saw my first castle and was happy for the stop.

The castle was built 600 years ago and the view from the top was mountains in all directions. It was significant due to the part the area played I Japan civil war 150 years ago.

The castle was full of stories of samurai fighters and restoration history... And photo opportunities.
 The next day I made it to Nikko, 150kms north of tokyo and come full of temples and shrines.
 All of the images I had of temples and Japanese buildings were crowded into a wooded hillside. The temples were stunning. Every twist in the path opened up a new vista of pagodas, lanterns, and lacquered stairs leading up to incense filled rooms.

I spent a wonderful afternoon wandering around, then topped it off with a scoop of soybean and brown sugar ice cream over sweet beans. 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Back roads and byways of Honshu

9 Sept
 There is not much for tourist spots in the yamagata prefecture, but the area is beautiful. Silly me was thinking I would bike along flat river valley's, but this is Japan, and flat is only here and there. So I used these last couple days to stop often and take pictures of the mundane, which is a great party of the fun.
 I love grocery stores in other countries. Everything is familiar but so different. Here I have no idea what I'm buying, usually I'll pick up a package to get a better look and it will be white and somewhat squishy. Everything here is wrapped in plastic, including individual carrots.
In bigger grocery stores they have bakeries and the bread here defies physics. It is so light that if seems like you are biting into little Debbie frosting rather than bread. Breads are usually filled with sweet beans or mayo. Every now and then I'll bite into something sweet and delicious which gives me a false sense of confidence when picking out my next treat.
 People's gardens are spectacular. Even in tiny plots, gardens become works of art. Trees are coached into artistic shapes and flowers are exploding right now.
 I've been relying heavily on my tablet for Google maps. Even still I find myself going the wrong direction and having to detour through little towns. I'm never disappointed since the smaller roads e by far more scenic.
 It's been cracking me up passing construction zones. All the barriers are held up with different creatures. Sometimes ducks, frogs, giraffes, little monsters, or dragons, Japan can even make muddy construction cute.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Northern Honshu-everything is uphill

7 Sept 2018
I finally got a room in Aomori to avoid the impending typhoon. My tiny room felt like the height of luxury and I was finally able to dry out all my things.
 The next morning I climbed and climbed. For 3 sold hours I had my bike in its smallest gear without a break. The mountain views were stunning, the roads smooth, and the traffic almost non existent.
 My endless hours of climbing were rewarded by beautiful tree lined roads and gorges with more waterfalls than I could keep track of.
I have been seeing so many other cyclists, almost all of them have been Japanese. Somehow they manage to cycle in the heat with long sleeves and tights whereas I would be in my birthday suit if I could.

Up at lake Towada, I caught my breath and snapped some photos. The lake is a massive caldera and once all the leaves change color, it must be gorgeous! Being a crater, I readied myself for another steep climb out.
 Onwards to my camp. I thought I would make it before dark, which happens at 6:00, but the mountains were to steep. With a headlight and taillight I climbed, then it started raining, and I climbed. Then it started pouring, and finally, at 8pm, I squelched my way into camp. The weather only got worse, screaming winds and sheets of rain. Fortunately I was able to sleep in the reception house with 3 motor cycle riders who also came in that night.

 I woke up to more rain and heavy wind- seems the typhoons had been a day late. By the afternoon the skies cleared and the wind speed. I made my way down the mountain only to find out that the area I had been traveling in Hokkaido was hit with a 6.7 earthquake and mudslides.
I was thankful that I had decided to push south even through the storm.

My goal was a meager 60km away, to lake Tazawa. I was thrilled that it was mostly flat. On the way to the lake I of course had to stop at the mountain honey shop and get honey ice cream as well as sample every kind of honey flavor I could. My favorite was honey orange, and I figured I should leave before they started having to refill the samples.

 The lake was stunning. White sandy beaches and calm. The legend of the lake is the fair maiden Tazawa drank so much water so keep her youthful beauty, that she turned into a water dragon and resides I the lake. Her lover is another lake dragon and their passionate relationship is why the lake never freezes in the winter.

The next morning I set out for Kakunodate, the samurai town. The samurai district has many houses over 300 years old, some with the same family still inhabiting them.

The streets are lined with cherry trees and it is suppose to be beautiful in the springtime. The town was getting ready for a parade, lining the streets with paper lanterns and life sized samurai warriors. Onwards and southward!