Even Monkeys Fall From Trees

Japan | Shimonoseki to Tokyo | Day 310

Stepping off the ferry on to the land of the rising sun, it’s raining and we start to cycle down our first Japanese roads. No skyscrapers or bright neon lights in Shimonoseki. Baffled by the 80’s looking taxis and punch keyboard ATM’s found in what I thought was going to be stepping into the future. Japan: cherry blossoms, manga, bonsai, sushi, Honda, Toyota, Sony, samurai, ninjas, haikus, kabuki, and Nintendo. People of discipline, punctuality, tradition, balance, harmony, and high-tech society. So much of Japan is intertwined in our pop culture and never have I had so many preconceived notions and expectations for a country. Japan is seemingly opposite in every way, like our eastern counter part. But in the end, it didn’t feel all that different, Japan feels more like our eastern brother, and a lot like home.


We arrived a bit too early in the season to hit Hokkaido, Japan’s most northern island, and possibly where the best riding could be found. But thanks to BikepackingJapan.com and LengthofJapan.com, who have done extensive riding and documentation throughout the country, we decided to explore the southern region riding from Shimonoseki to Nagoya. This meant more traditional road touring on pavement, visiting the cities of: Hiroshima, Hagi, Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and eventually taking a bus to Tokyo.

"Never have I had so many preconceived notions and expectations for a country."


Those first few days of peddling down quiet country roads would be some of our most peaceful in Japan. As we reached the coast, it quickly began to feel like the entire country was one big suburb. Moving from neighborhood, to city center, to industrial complexes, only to repeat over and over again, stopping at every red light along the way. For a country smaller than California, it has four times as many people. 

Our first big city of our month in Japan was Hiroshima, just in time for Eric’s birthday. Still on a pretty strict budget we celebrated with grocery store sushi, a somber visit to the Atomic bomb museum, and ice cream. It was hard to stay on budget, everything is essentially American prices and every temple, garden, and museum will put you back. We had to pick our entertainment wisely and were restricted to eating at convenience stores and sleeping in public parks. Long gone are the days of steak dinners and sauntering in to chandelier draped hotels. Kyoto, the former imperial capital, is full of history and was a great place to spend a couple days wandering around Zen gardens. We visited ancient samurai towns in the south and cycled Shimanami Kaido, a fifty mile bike friendly bridge that links six islands together on its way to Shikoku. 



Large Tori gates symbolize the entrance into the spiritual realm, leading to Shinto shrines  usually found on hilltops. There are over 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan, each of them looked after and kept up by the local community. The island of Shikoku is famous for its 88 Buddhist temple trek. For four to six weeks pilgrims walk from temple to temple resighting the heart sutra at each stop and receiving stamps and calligraphy writing in their books, we had the pleasure of meeting a few of them.



Japan is quiet and conservative. Even in Tokyo people talk in hushed voices and traffic whizzes by soundlessly. It starts to become unnerving after a while. Japan has a way of pressing all my rebellious buttons: I just can't stand waiting for the walk sign to turn green when there are absolutely no cars around. Initially it was a nice change to be amongst an overly considerate culture, but now it shines too much light on my own selfishness and impoliteness. Maybe I’m more comfortable around the honking, spitting, screaming cultures; at least for this trip, while I'm purposely maintaining a vagabond style and working on my mullet-mohawk. 



I loved the minimalist aesthetic, and found Japan to be incredibly artistically inspiring. They have a specific place and object for everything. Free umbrellas, a kart to roll your bike boxes to the subway on, a tiny dish to rest your chopsticks. Public spaces are maintained as one would keep his/her own house. No trash blowing in the wind, in fact you’ll be hard up to find a trash can period, but it’s welcoming being where people recycle and care about the environment. Going to the bathroom in Japan is something I take immense joy in: the pre-warmed seat, the various places you can shoot water, you leave the bathroom cleaner than when you went in. I am already missing this level of hygiene before we even left.

"They have a specific place and object for everything."


“Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid of standing still.” -Japanese Proverbs
 


I always thought of Japan as being the most eastern-minded country and would perhaps be the most different, but being the most modern it ended up feeling the most like home. I spent the majority of my riding time noting the differences between their Confucius based society and our highly prized independent society of the west. The level of professionalism, courtesy, and cleanliness of Japan is impressive. Everyone does their job well, in uniform, and with a smile. Although everyone was kind, generous, and helpful, we never made any real connections over the month we spent here, people tend to keep to themselves and speak when spoken to. The layers of respect and limited English kept us from having very many conversations.



We arrived in Tokyo and met up with Travis, our good friend from back home. After a few nights of sake, impromptu dance parties in tiny Tokyo bars, and walking miles around the city we set off in a rental camper van to go road trippin’ and peek bagging in the Japanese Alps. Getting the camper van through Tokyo was hellish, we got taken for $50 in tolls in less than 30 minutes, leaving us cursing and vowing never to get on the toll road again. And in doing so, doubling our drive time. 

"After a few nights of sake, impromptu dance parties in tiny Tokyo bars and walking miles around the city..."

 

  


Our first day, after hours of weaving through switchbacks and mountain roads, we found an epic parking lot which would act as our base camp for Mt Yari. Starting before sunrise we began the ascent. Unaware of the unusual amount of snowfall they had this season, we soon found ourselves falling through a thigh-high sea of half melted snow. We made it half way up the mountain, and through avalanche areas, before tucking our tails in retreat. “Not in those shoes,” laughed some other trekkers as they prepped their rigid snow boots, ice axes and helmets near the start of the trek, “guess not…” we thought to ourselves as we walked back to the van.

"We soon found ourselves falling through a thigh-high sea of half melted snow."

We continued the search for a lower elevation hike while Travis mastered driving on the left side of the road. Turns out every hike in the Japanese alps is socked in and impossible to traverse. Instead we learned about milk cartons of sake, found a beautiful wild onsen (hot spring), walked through Edo period mountain villages, and even glimpsed Mt. Fuji through a fog of clouds. It was refreshing to have Travis come adventure with us, road-tripping through Japan was definitely a high-light.  



Cycling between suburbs with constant traffic lights, malls, and industry wasn’t the most thrilling riding. We were coming up on our second month of “easy riding” on flat paved roads while we waited for the season to turn and the snow in central Asia to melt. Japan was calm, easy, and convenient. This final stint felt just enough like home, paired with a visit from Travis had us reenergized and ready to get back into some serious adventure riding in Central Asia. 

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, and China being China, we were unable to apply for a Chinese visa outside of our motherland. We had researched for countless hours, prepped loads of paperwork for the embassy, made false reservations for the entire trip, including fake plane tickets and hotel bookings (China no-likey anyone on bicycle, going to Xinjiang with no ticket out of the country.) Only to show up at the embassy and be told “No, as of yesterday China’s systems are down for 2-3 weeks, you cannot get a visa from here.” All of our hopes and plans to visit Xinjiang, the mysterious Chinese province in the Tien Shan mountains came crashing down. We sat bewildered in the waiting room watching foreigner after foreigner get shot down.

As we sat broken-hearted Japan was sucking our cash flow, and we needed out fast. It made the most financial sense to continue on our trajectory of heading into the Tien Shan mountains, creeping closer west. We booked a flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan and will begin to make our way through the big mountains of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Central Asia here we come! 


 

  

Riding Wild Mailing List

Get them updates delivered to your email