Sunday, September 11, 2005

posted on 9/11/2005

Japan 2005

Having been fascinated by Japan for many years, I thought it would make and ideal destination to discover on a bicycle. The adventure of cycling into a country where even signposts can be a challenge fascinated me and the ability to discover cities like Kyoto and Nara and see those zen temples and garden I had so often read about proved too hard a pull to resist.

Tokyo-Nikko, 2nd September 2005

After so much fascination with Japanese culture and growing up on pasta and japanese cartoons, I finally arrived in a sweltering hot and busy Tokyo for the start of a new cycling adventure. I know it is only the start and I haven’t even unpacked my bike yet, but as I was sitting in Kitasenju Station waiting for the last of a series of trains that will get me to the town of Nikko, there was a sense of achievement in surviving the commuting crowds at peak time with all my luggage and my disassembled mountain bike! Their faces showed some disbelief as they stepped into the train and noticed this foreigner apparently moving furniture and taking the space of ten regular sized passengers with his big box! Despite the good preparation I did before the trip, having never been to Tokyo I did not realize how further downtown the train would go from Narita airport to my transfer station and how badly overcrowded the trains would be at this time... Tomorrow I will begin the cycling journey proper. Despite this hiccup, all started remarkably well after my arrival at the airport; asking a lady for directions I ended up having a conversation in japanese that made me proud of my few months of studying the language. She was stopping at the same first station I was meant to get off so we sat together and I managed to find out that she had taken her daughter to the airport as she was flying for a holiday to Vietnam. She was from Saitama and ... yes her first few words, confirming all odds, were 'Nihongo ga jozu desu ne'. Nothing to get excited about as it seems the standard way to praise brave foreigners in their faintest attempts to utter some japanese sounds! She seemed pretty concerned about my well being and walked a bit with me as I struggled with my excess baggage upstairs and downstairs in order to catch my connecting train. After we parted and I thanked her for showing me the way I realized why she had been worried; I was left dragging my belongings through what seemed like a japanese equivalent of a memorable 'Khumb Mela'! Maintaining my sanity was a test of the adaptable qualities of the human species. My stamina got a final gruelling test once I reached the departure platform of my Nikko bound train. I was met by stern looks and disbelief by a station master who risked his own life telling me that my box was too big to get on that train. Breaking all etiquette and on the verge of a breakdown myself, I ranted out with force that I had already taken three commuter trains so far, that I had come all the way from London and that I would need to be handcuffed and at gun point to not get on that train! This seemed to work in my favour, it softened him up somewhat or more likely, he probably made up his mind that I must have been raving mad and beyond any help!

Nikko-Yunoko, 3rd September 2005

My emergency camping spot for the night in Nikko was nothing better than a tiled balcony on the side of the train station! A bit noisy with cars and being friday people coming and going to restaurants and bars. At five I got up and packed the tent before risking being arrested on the early hours of my first Japan dawn. Being close to the famous shrines that were opening at eight o’clock, I set out for some early exploration on foot before it got too busy with the Tokyo tourists crowd. This worked out really well, I was able to feel the sacredness and majesty of these shrines and temples without the noise and bustle that is the norm in any major sightseeing spot around the world and surely in this busy island. Unexpectedly I could see some of the highlights from outside such as the impressive Hondo of Rinnoji an imposing Shingon Buddhist temple as big as I had ever seen. The quiet morning mist was shaken by loud shouts of a group of students training in the martial art of Kendo. I spotted them starting their early morning training in a small temple and asking permission I was allowed to watch their exhausting session from the open doors of the dojo. About 30 young men and women clad in their beautiful samurai like uniforms and wooden sticks were exchanging blows with such energy that after an hour they were all hardly able to breathe. The noise of all the blows and their shouts filled the hall and for a moment I almost wished I could join in! It was soon opening time and I could visit all the sites in relative quietness. Again I was fortunate to begin my visit of Rinnoji and follow the early chanting of the priest and monks from the main hall, the ‘Sanbutsu do’ where I also visited a grand triptych of Kannon, Amida and Bato, eight meters high gold lacquered wooden statues set next to each other. In another more modern section of the temple monks were chanting accompanied by beating drums and the priest lit a big fire in front of him while throwing incense that cracked and popped in the heat of the towering flames. I would have been satisfied with all I had already seen yet the main highlight of Toshogu the main shinto shrine was still to be visited! Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu was laid to rest here in 1617. A steep flight of stairs lead through a series of ever more decorated gates surrounded by little temples and pagodas culminating in the grand buildings at the top where the burial room is. The all place was magic and its setting among a big forest of towering cedar trees reminded me of the giant redwoods I had so much loved in California. By ten o'clock I had visited all the highlights including Futarasan Jinja and Semon-ji, a pretty garden with pond and large colorful carps. With crowds surging the place lost some of its appeal and I was happy to leave it keeping with me the memories and sights of that early quiet morning stroll. The bike trip then began. I headed uphill towards lake Chuzenji and after a few hours I reached Yunoko lake by two in the afternoon, where I set up my tent and experienced for the first time the joys of a japanese onsen, soaking my jet lag and traveling dramas for two full blissful hours.

Yunoko-Kusatsu, 4th September 2005

I completed the longest ride planned for this holiday. Despite the rain of last night and the bad weather forecast, I woke up to a sunny day and by seven o'clock I was riding up Konsei Pass reaching an altitude of 1850 metres. At this early hour the road was very quiet and once reached the top I cycled through a peaceful plane scattered with forests and lakes. I reached Nakanojo by lunchtime and luck was again on my side. The once a year local Matsuri festival was about to begin and I couldn’t have timed my arrival any better! It turned out to be quite an experience and I was fascinated to be able to see something so alien to me. The Shinto priest in his full white robe and black hat was blessing each portable wooden shrine before it got shifted on the shoulders of colorfully clad men and women and paraded around town. Children played a part in it too, some of them sitting at the top of the wooden structure beating drums others simply enjoying their moment of fame. I was also invited to sit down and have a beer by a group of local men somehow curious to find out what on earth had brought a foreigner cyclist wearing lycra to their little town Matsuri! As I began my last climb to the hot spring resort of Kusatsu I had a close encounter with typhoon 14; a violent downpour drenched the last ten kilometres of my long ride. Forecast seems all gloomy, predicting that he will be with me for the next few days. After checking into the hostel I met Yoshimi and another Japanese motor biker with whom I was sharing my room. I had made Kusatsu my next stop to be able to experience one of the most popular japanese activities, relaxing in an ‘onsen’, a natural hot spring. After a quick stop at the hostel I headed straight to town and looked for Otaki No Yu, a onsen that had been recommended to me. It was a delightful place with spotless changing rooms and bars but mostly a series of indoor and outdoor pools of white sulphur hot water. The tiredness and aches of my few days cycling and the rain still falling hard made the all experience even more memorable. The pools of sulphur rich white water, were pretty hot at around 43 degrees and every five minutes or so one is advised to get out and cool down to avoid fainting! This no wonder started my lifetime passion for hot springs and as I relaxed there I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before I would again be able to stroll naked under the falling rain, dipping in and out of hot pools with a towel stuck on my head! After dinner in a local restaurant I returned to the hostel for a chat with my traveling friends and a look at the route to follow tomorrow.

Kusatsu-Nagano, 5th September 2005

Today I truly tested my amphibious qualities, riding the full day under an unceasingly torrential rain. I said farewell to Yoshimi san and Mr Sumeda and in a matter of minutes, descending along the steep road, I was already soaked, so much so that it did not matter anymore! Resigning myself to its wetness I began to enjoy the break from the intense heat of the past two days. The only disappointment was to not easily be able to take pictures. Route 35 particularly after Tsumagoi was really beautiful twisting around many steep hills with thick forests of cedars and pines. Along the winding road a few scattered villages and lots of rice fields painting the landscapes with their almost fluorescent light greens. After almost three days spent in the mountains, the big city of Nagano at first glance was a bit of a shock. Much bigger than I expected it, with much traffic, the usual mess of electric wires, speakers sounds and stacks of sign boards that usually mark japanese cities. My reason to stop here was a visit to Zenko-ji, the large temple complex built in the seventh century. Ikko Sanzon, the oldest Buddhist image to come to Japan is said to be held here and keeping to its mysterious appearance, it is locked securely away and only emperors or temple priests are able to look at it! Within the compounds was the youth hostel, a small temple itself with traditional tatami rooms, sliding doors and attractive wooden framed rice paper sliding doors called shoji. The lady in charge was full of warmth and helpful showing me around and preparing our beds in the large dorm that was likely to have been itself a shrine or meditation hall in the old days. Here I had a chat with Yagi a japanese student from Kobe. Forecasts for the following day made for some pretty depressing reading and it got even worse when someone mentioned, to my shock and horror, that typhoon 14 will be arriving! This when I thought that it had already stuck to me faithfully for the last two days! By now I had learnt that I wasn’t a lump of sugar but rather a happy fish leaping in the water so I looked forward to an early night and in true temple style lights were by nine thirty.

Nagano-Matsumoto, 6th September 2005

I got up at five in the morning to attend the dawn ceremony at Zenko-ji and was really surprised to see that it had stopped raining and clouds were breaking. The ceremony was well worth the early rise; it involved about a dozen of monks and lot of kneeling in the Hondo, the ceremony hall. The chanting lasted about 30 minutes and every few minutes a group of five people was allowed to kneel between the two aisles of chanting monks, something I was grateful to have been able to experience. At about nine I departed trying to find my right way, heading south and out of Nagano. Asking directions I was more than once given the wrong information from locals who seemed eager to send me to a three lanes freeway! Once left the city I finally found route 403 instead, a much cycling friendly and sane way to reach Matsumoto. It involved a bit more climbing but the absence of traffic and the nice landscape made it all worth it. As I arrived in Matsumoto dark clouds hovered on the horizon and I decided to play it safe, forget my camping plans and find a hostel instead. Matsumoto is famous for having one of the only three remaining original japanese castles left in the country. By chance I met again Murray a guy who was sharing the room with me in Nagano and we visited together the interior of the castle. I enjoyed the visit but the exterior was most beautiful and I made sure to return in the evening when it would all be lit up, and reflected in the surrounding moat. My inseparable friend, typhoon 14 seems to want to follow me all the way to Takayama! Wishing for a bit more sun I was nevertheless having a most enjoyable time in Japan.

Matsumoto-Takayama, 8th of September 2005

I had a slow start from Matsumoto due to the rain and indeed the forecasts were once again very accurate! Due to the typhoon still affecting central Honshu I thought I should better change my plans to climb up Norikura Skyline, the highest motorable road in the country and rather aim straight to Takayama gaining half a day on my schedule. Despite the wet weather I had a very good ride. Before heading up to Kamikochi I looked for the 'cave onsen' of Nakanoyu. My Lonely Planet guide said this was a best kept secret unless you happen to have bought the guide that is! Exactly as I had read, the tiny shop before the tunnel provided the keys and the shopkeeper escorted me to a tiny wooden hut, the entrance to the cave. This was the changing room and only a few steps further down and through another door I reached a pretty dark grotto where I sat blissfully in a hot natural water pool for thirty minutes, probably the time it normally takes for the next Lonely Planet tourist to turn up. Indeed mine was very punctual in the shape of an australian girl traveling on her own, Lonely Planer under her arm! After this unique experience I went up the hill to visit Kamikochi one of the main resorts for japanese hikers in the Alps, kept unspoiled by limiting access to buses, taxis and bicycles; the mountains all around were somehow hiding in the clouds still hovering all around. I finally left Kamikochi to tackle the last climb of the day to Hirayu where it really started pouring down. Takayama was a long downhill ride along the most beautiful mountain scenery I had seen so far. A wonderful display of little mountains covered by Sugi trees and pines. The low clouds and fog gave a sense of mystery to the place and proved to be a good photo opportunity at last. Reached Takayama a really quaint town, I looked and quickly found Tosho-ji a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple that also functioned as the town main youth hostel. The very friendly priest showed me around, giving me the chance to peek inside a traditional japanese temple.

Takayama-Kyoto, 9th September 2005

I reached Kyoto in the evening after a most interesting day spent visiting Takayama main sites. The good impression I first had, walking in the town centre the previous evening were confirmed. Unlike most japanese cities, often a sequence of anonymous modern building blocks , Takayama still managed to maintain its charm and seemed very much like it would have been before so called ‘progress’ transformed this island. I began my visit in Yoshijima-ke one of the two main old merchant houses, a japanese interior design jewel now open to the public. This was a fine example indeed. After strolling around the historic part with little alleys and open air markets I visited Hida no Sato. On top of a hill surrounded by forests, it is a cluster of old country farm houses called 'Gassho Zukkuri' whose architecture had its origins in the Hida region around 1500-1700. There were about a dozen of such houses, relocated here in order to preserve them for future generations. They were scattered around a lake and a walking trail let visitors wander from one house to the other like a walk back in time. I lost count of all the pictures I took and as I had not planned a visit here, it seemed a blessing to have changed my mind I would have missed something very interesting indeed. At three o'clock I was on the train station car park absorbed in the art of bike dismantling and packing in order to satisfy Japan Rails and be able to board my next train to Kyoto. This trip had already been so rich in sights and experiences that I could hardly believe that the best part had yet to come, Kyoto, Nara and Mount Koya still laid ahead!

Kyoto-Nara, 12th September 2005

After three days of trying to cope with the sights overload that was Kyoto and its 1800 temples it was good to be finally riding again heading to the other ancient capital of Nara. Kyoto was simply dazzling, so many temples and gardens I wanted to visit and so many times I found myself crossing the boundary between the sacred and the profane! One minute I was surrounded by the noise and bustle of a metropolis, the next I was walking through a gate and surrounded by peace and silence; an entirely different world opens up as you sit in front of the stark simplicity and bare beauty of a zen temple garden with the peaceful background noise of chirping cicadas. In Kyoto I also met Malcolm, and english zen student that my teacher had introduced to me and Kyoko my japanese friend who currently lived in London. In the morning after a brief stop to see the path of Torii gates at the Shinto shrine of Fushimi Inari, I took busy road 24 in order to get to Nara early. The monsoon like rain that soaked me yesterday and the deadly temperature excursions of air-conditioned indoors, meant that I was pretty crippled by a nasty cold and not as fit as I would have liked. I made it to Nara by ten, dropped my luggage at the hostel and began visiting in earnest starting with Todai-ji the biggest wooden building in the world housing an equally massive scale statue of Daibutsu. What gives Nara a unique feel though are all the tamed deer in Nara Park, so accustomed to people that they are at ease when stroked and fed by the flood of tourists. The city was much smaller and quieter, embellished by the steep grass slopes of Wakakusa Yama the mountain rising behind Nara Koen. My visit continued up the hill to Kasuga Taisha a Shinto shrine nested in the forest famous for its countless lanterns of all shapes and sizes

Nara-Mount Koya, 13th September 2005

I departed early morning and reached Horyu-ji the first and only temple to visit on the way to Koya San. Some of the buildings are originals dating back to the eighth century making them the oldest wooden buildings in the world. The temples and pagoda are in the classic chinese style of the Tang dynasty, beautifully preserved yet lacking the aliveness of the active monasteries and temples I had visited in Kyoto. I then continued on road 24 through a seemingly never ending sprawl of suburbs scattered with shopping centres and myriads of signs and flags competing for attention. Once reached road 370 the scenery dramatically changed and I began climbing the twisty road leading to the holy Mount Koya. Being the burial place of such an influential figure as Kobo Daishi, one of the most revered figures in japanese Buddhism. The sacredness of this mountain was very much alive and could be often witnessed by the frequent sight of pilgrims clothed in white robes and straw sandals meditatively walking up its slopes. Left the heavy traffic behind and after five days spent sightseeing busy cities I was grateful to be back in the silence of nature. After twenty kilometres I finally stood in front of the majestic red Daimon the western gate delimiting the entrance to the holy sites of Koya. From there on a sequence of temples and a large community of monks was clear sign that this was indeed a different place where spirituality was lived very much like it had been lived for centuries in the past. Despite having become a tourist attraction with the inevitable commercial side to it, it still kept its main purpose very much alive and could be witnessed at all times. Not able to find the youth hostel upon asking I was escorted by a friendly young cyclist, student of the local Buddhist college where Shingon priests start their academic training.