The next day we missed a change in our perspective at a renowned zen garden, in favour of visiting our childhood dream - a Samurai Sword Museum in the town of Bijzen. The display had a minimalist elegance: the almost millennium year-old steel blades held on simple stands in a long pure white cabinet. Most pieces did not even include grips on the list or scabbard, just honed undecorated blades with a label underneath like a painting: denoting the master, the place of origin and the approximate date. The swords of Bijzen had been often mentioned in revered tones in the audiobook I had been listening to: an english translation of a classic Samurai epic - Musashi Miyamoto. It is set in the 16th and 17th century, through its protagonists' expression of Japanese ideals and tropes it tracks the early transition of the Samurai from fierce warrior to refined administrator. We were approaching the novel's geographical domain, and the literature wound around the landscape wondrously on our journey.
In an information area beneath the main gallery, we learned of the metal folding process that goes into a katana, the hunk of steel will be drawn and folded tens of times, before being reheated and the process repeated. In the end the steel strands will lay over each other thousands of times, creating a fantastic strength and lightness in the blade. They even have a working forge and smithy and a workshop to create the hilt and scabbard, the mastery has not yet been lost here. It was at this point of departure that Rob mounted his bike and realised both backstays had sheared completely from the frame benat the seat. All of the weight of Rob and his heavily laden panniers were stressed through a single joint at the base of the frame, the bike was wholly unrideable for fear of further damage. Dusk was setting in and we still had 50-odd km to cover to our target of Himeji.
Yet there we were in a town with metallurgy history going back millenia, surrounded by experts working in steel every day, it would have been difficult to pick a better place for this to occur. The master sword armour came out of his forge to examine the damage, after a few calls and a brief recon, we found a workshop with a kindly elder gentlemen with a wizard of a welder. I barely had time to buy a green tea parfait from 7-eleven before the sparks had flown and rob's bike had a new golden bum. For Rob the initial pain and panic of the damage was far outweighed by the exhilaration of the fixing and the story, the bikes need a few battle scars after all. Then we were off into the dark, two wandering Ronin (masterless travelling Samurai) heading for their next duel with fate.
In Japan, we became black-belts in the Art of Urban Camping. This was partially because it’s so safe you could pop your tent up anywhere, and in part because the Japanese psyche doesn’t seem to push people to offering hospitality quite so quickly as elsewhere. However, the few hosts we did find were remarkable people in equally notable circumstances - find out below.
Throughout our journey we have camped in the shadow of a dozen Japanese castles, they tend to have wonderful parks around them with 24 hour public toilets. The view in the morning is often something to savour too. But by far the finest of these castle camps was Himeji, stamped by UNESCO as the finest example of Jpanese wooden castle building, it is colloquially known as the 'Castle of The White Crane'. This nomer stems from it's dazzling white washed walls and how it stands in a graceful but towering pose of seven stories above the outcrop it perches upon. It is another place that features in the Musashi novel, the samurai hero spends 3 years until he is 22 locked in a dungeon reforming himself, reading ancient wisdom including the Sun Tzu's Art of War - the chapter rather resembles an intellectual version of a Rocky Balboa training montage.
We entered marginally before the day's first tsunami of Japanesechool children, more than a hundred legs stormed up the castle's seven floors with a speed and aggression not seen at the castle for hundreds of years, at least until it got world heritage status. There was no appreciation of history or wonderment, the object of the school trip seemed to be a race more than anything else. After this human flood, when the wooden beams quietened from their thunder, the dry wooden aroma of the ancient hardwood could be taken in to transport the minds of the visitors back centuries. Inside, the castle had a solidity and strength to more than match it's external grace. The building itself seemed to physically represent the ideals of the age of its creation, ideals that have been recast and reused by the governments of imperial and modern Japan.
The cycle east on the way to the Osaka urban basin took us through idyllic river villages, flanked by orchards and terraced rice paddies on the hill sides. Resuming the afternoon session of cycling, I had just switched on the audiobook to a description closely matching the one above, the author was describing a well-managed Daimyo estate with its central keep in the tiny village of Kasagi. In growing wonderment, I looked down at my phone maps, and realised the hamlet we were riding through was that same Kasagi, it matched description perfectly, and was one of the rare moments of inner experiential alignment, where the world seems in tune with the one looking at it.
Our mini world-cup kicked off in Osaka, where we had secured dirt cheap tickets to Fiji vs Georgia, and there were plenty of tasty pool match-up to savour from the city's izakayas. In all these games we seemed to be pedalling desperately to catch kick-off, we had caught Japan's heroics against Ireland from my phone screen in an onsen surrounded by bemused crinklies wrapped in spa kimonos, unaware of the magnitude of the result. Elsewhere, we had sprinted for hours to Hiroshima to get the England vs USA game, and now here I was blasting across town to see our only stadium game. Perhaps Japanese stewards simply don't understand rushing since everyone is perfectly on time, either way I caught the anthems echo.
The game itself was cose in the first half, before the fijian fliers opened their legs and showed their class, running in try after try in a spectacular second half. I had snuck into some superb halfway seats, only to realise all of the Fijian WAGS, and their piercing battle screams, were behind me. The atmosphere after the match was lit by the Fijian fireworks, and a long night of Izakayas followed meeting up with Rob's childhood friend Joe. The night concluded with a deluge, and we returned to the stadium to shelter from the incoming storm: media tent by day, makeshift bedroom by night. After months of anticipation, we were immersed in the Rugby World Cup day and night.
Whilst only catching one live game, we had an interesting experience with the official tournament fanzones. Cutting it fine as usual, we headed to Toyota City to see the England vs Argentina and Japan vs Samoa double header (the latter was being played in the city's nearby stadium). Arriving at kick-off, we were barred entry by the security who said the hall had long been full up to its safe capacity. We spoke to every rung of the hierarchy, in our finest google translate, we colourfully explained our journey, its good cause, and our dubious 'media platform' in an effort to secure special dispensation or press passes. All of this was clearly to no avail, rules really are rules in Japan, and there is always a higher authority, who is always unreachable.
Every last conversational avenue was explored and then rejected, before we started our covert recce of the building, exploring the physical openings that would give us our desired entry. In fastidious fashion of Japan, all fire escapes, second story windows, and smoking areas were externally locked, and we ended up outside the front again. Summoning all the Juggah learned in a couple of years in India, I dived into an official entrance during a quiet moment and half-pleaded half-jostled past a first security guard, before walking behind the backs of the main security cordon and vaultin the rope before blending into the crowd. Rob was left outside until half time, when he smuggled himself in alongside european media, and ingeniously feigned a forgotten lanyard at the kindly women watching the door. We got our reward with the courteous and occasionally rapturous atmosphere in the fanzone hall, we had made the transition from travelling Ronin to Ninjas.
The coast between Osaka and Shizuoka was heavily populated with industrial ports, and it made for cycling to forget. We had a couple more run-ins with the police, and were again kicked off expressways and bypasses, learning from the police reaction times quite how instantly they are off limits, there is no time for gaming the system at all here. This within-the-lines mentality is also expressed how despite our best attempts, we were not able to sleep after-hours in any of the Japanes restaurants visited. Unsurprisingly, the only time this did occur in Japan was in a Nepali Indian restaurant at the foot of Mt. Fuji; the above mentioned 'Juggah' of the Indian continent is the other end of the spectrum to the law abiding Japanese.
Approaching the base of Fuji's slope, dense grey fog obscured all but the surrounding pine trees. The region is famous for its dairy farming, the singing smells of cow feed and excrement carried far and well in the air heavy with moisture. The iconic slope of the mountain, with its gentle increasing gradient, could be felt keener than ever from the bikes. The immediate fog cleared as we rounded the Western slope, and whole form of steepening natural pyramid could be picked out. the upper reaches were hooped in unique clouds resembling Saturn's rings, whilst the summit was crowned by a miniature mushroom cloud.
We stayed in the garden of a mountain resort, working late into the night at the cocktail bar, we were pulled over by the owner who wanted us to form the audience for the barman, he was practicing his original recipe and routine for an upcoming cocktail championship. The performance was remarkable and was performed with quaking nerves throughout. Every movement was deliberate and considered and none were superfluous to the making of the drinks, although each stage would be marked by a formal bow with hands fixed to the bartop, eyes fixed ahead. From my cursory knowledge, it seemed as a modern incarnation of the Zen Tea ceremony, where formality and etiquette were strictly emphasised as was efficiency of movement. To imagine a flashy, convivial Western cocktail barman performing the same rite was utterly impossible.
NOTES Lunch hostess, vocal expressions of wonderment potential super fan, and you can see how the Japanese and Koreans have a suitable disposition for super fandom. Creative book ideas flourishing as trip ends, charioteer again? Sleeping in ski-stop bus stop, vagrancy is easy when there are no others around. Sake enjoyed more to Niigata and Akita, holed up drinking as typhoon Chagabis rages outside, headwinds like hills. Rob and I reflecting more with each other, and knowing our rhythm and space in discussions with each other.
Japanese food conveyor belt sushi with mini Shinkansen high speed train to deliver ordered plates. The fastest of food and also the logical conclusion in efficiency. Japanese seem to find these depersonalised solutions where western minds cannot or perhaps do not seek to. Their society is more ripe for automation than any others.
For the epic Japan vs Scotland game, we chanced upon a poky but superb smelling izakaya. It was an old boys haven, judging by clientele and host the place had a minimum age limit of 60. The stunning play and eventual Japanese victory saw the old codgers roll back the years, by the second half they were up out of their seats and well into their sake. Their knowledge of the rules was admirable, although we did have to explain some of the finer points, even occasionally with light contact demonstrations.