The precision and fastidiousness of Japan was perceivable before we had officially entered the country. The staff at customs and containment went as far as disinfecting and cleaning the rims and all the spokes on our wheels, everything was checked for specs of foreign dirt that could not be allowed on Japanese soil. I've learned that borders, actual border buildings - the staff and their processes, are some of the richest places to discern and learn about a country from. The range of behaviour and attitude has been at least as wide as the diversity of people from place to place. They reveal so much in how countries treat the threat or opportunity of foreign visitors, how they see themselves in relation to the peoples of the world, and crucially how they want to be seen by that world. From the Schengen non-borders of Europe; the beard tugging and drone confiscation of Azerbaijan; foreigner queue skipping and currency sharks of Uzbekistan; to the whole body scanners, tech arsenal and rainbow arches of China; a border is much but not all of a country.
The strongest allure Japan had held over us through the whole trip was not it's position as a finish, but as a dinner table. Through the great wild space of Central Asia, in every bowlful of instant noodles, and inside every rotten horse dumpling, there was a great dream and longing for Japanese cuisine. In our first week in the country we tried a dozen or more individual styles of cooking or food types, each one would have been the crowning glory of any Steppe country's offering. Japan has an embarrassment of riches in dish diversity, and the bar is set so high by even the most common and average fast food places. To put it in perspective, Japan has twice the number of restaurants per capita as the US, and Tokyo has more 3-star Michelin planes as Paris and London combined. But near the port of Fukuoka, we started poorly and cheaply in a place best described as a TGI Friday's equivalent. Though the freshness of flavours and balance in the meal set would have notable in a high-end restaurant back home, and impossible to conceive of for £10 in an out-of-town chain eatery.
It all stepped up and weirded out that evening however, at the original Ichiran Ramen Restaurant. An official form greets you upon sitting down, on a 1-5 scale you select the following: seasoning, richness, garlic level, spice on 1-10, and noodle texture from extra firm to extra soft. There is even a how to manual poster steps 1-4 with graphics: 1.'how to order', 2.'focus on taste', 3.'extra ordering', 4.'make soup with leftovers'. The second point is the secret to the restaurant’s success. There is the utter minimum of human interaction, you hand the form through a slit in the bamboo curtain to a loud 'hai!' ('yes!'). A few minutes later the bamboo curtain is rolled up momentarily, and a meal tray appears before you, with another sharp but undecipherable exclamation. As a serving experience it's ideally suited to anyone terrified by eye contact or social interaction of any form. The coup de grace was in the bog, 6 individual roll dispensers were proudly fastened to the wall, with an attached note stating 'Ichiran strives to make sure that you will never, ever run out of toilet paper'.
NOTES Pachinko halls, description of hellish sound looped through itself like two mirrors in an elevator, electric beeps and tones, high hat of cash registers and coin slotting, with volume of a EDM club but chaotic cacophony. Where attention must be do disparate and diluted for none of the gamers to hear the sound of the hellish forest from their own individual whirring tree. I can easily call it out as the single most unpleasant and unmanageable environment of the whole trip so far. Walking down aisle through aisle, like layers of razors on each other. People across age, sex and income were there, I couldn't work out if there was a bonding feature or attribute that led them into this hell regularly, or whether people are plucked out at random in life's lottery to take this course.
Across Kyushu and later on through Shikoku, gut-punchy climbing short sharp volcanic slopes, and between Osaka and Nara there was the first climb of the whole trip where through steepness of slope (and hangover) we had to push our bikes up for several km. In the smaller coastal villages the distinctive traditional style of sloped roofs and eaves were plentiful enough to paint a picture in history, where in Korea or China trad houses were the exception not the majority. Ease of the place given by these scenes, or by the ease in our mind at having n more borders to cross and approaching our final turns of the pedals.
For the first 10 days every meal was an opportunity to be grasped and savoured, every mealtime a new cuisine style. Be it Ramen in Fukuoka, Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima or later in Osaka, or takoyaki in Osaka, Unagi in Nagoya, or the beef in Kobe to come. The Japanese seem to be more committed foodies than any other nationality, we saw absurdly long queues outside certain restaurants, all waiting with perfect patience, all from different demographics - not just hipsters with too much time and money on their hands.
We have clearly not neglected sushi whilst here. In the better places, the chef will serve a single neatly defined mouthful at a time. This presentation defines the rules of the game and the manner of consumption, only leaving the 'tasting ceremony' to you. This unitary delivery encourages extreme sensory focus and attunement more than any other food design, the meal becomes a precise exercise in enjoyment. But more than the high-end it is the basic places where Japan most excels. Even 7-eleven's offering, which we have made such heavy use of, ranks as exquisite compared to most of our journey's fare. With ATM's, printing, full private bathrooms, microwave, kettle, coffee machine, plugs, cafe area, and attentive and immediate Japanese service, you could not design a better service station for cycle tourists. Alan Partridge would be proud, it makes being a serial roadie that much more palatable, especially when partnered with the wonder of Onsens.
Onsens are public baths built on volcanic hot springs, all onsens will have several hot baths at different temperatures, seated showers, and hopefully a sauna and ice bath. There are fancier and pseudo scientific offerings like Busan's SPALAND or some of Osaka's establishments which boast Himalayan salt far-infrared saunas, Ochre rooms, vibration resonance therapies, even a pyramid room with sloped sides matching the exact angles at Giza. But the vast majority keep things very simple and very naked. Sexes are split, but ages are not, and as a traditional daily practice in a country with one of the longest life expectancy's - one gets a very good appreciation of the effects of age on the human body.
They are used by a younger crowd in the cities, and in Osaka we became inadvertently part of an extreme sauna ritual. We were sweating it all out when, around 25 naked men and two assistants crammed into the sauna in under a minute. All sat down and started covering their faces with wet towels like nude highwaymen. One assistant then dropped bucket-load after bucket-load on the coals bringing the temperature up like a runaway train, whilst the other fanned the resulting heat daggers straight at the crowd. Each initiate gets several full frontal air blasts, several men surrendered and dashed out early, but they missed out on the collective applause at the end of the ceremony - what a way to build community spirit. Call me Scandy, but nude public bathing seems a fantastic way to cultivate an open and trusting society. In this vein, ice baths follow the saunas and a near nirvana state can be approached for a time. And call me Wim Hoff, but regular ice baths will be a life take-away from this trip, little else can slow the breath and mind so powerfully. Yet here and now, Onsen have played a crucial role on our Japanese leg in enabling us to tent permanently without feeling an accumulated grubbiness. We would visit whenever I needed a shave, roughly every three days - neatly coinciding with peek pong.
NOTES - Flirted with saunas before, but had never worked it out as a regimen. Ice baths provide the real blis in this, and will become a life long habit, Ice bath entered with the right frame of mind brings almost as much pleasure as able to experience anywhere else in this life. And over reps of sauna, ice and bath body and breath slows to a contented rate.
The food, the world's most 'convenient stores', the Onsens and the ease of urban camping have made Japan a feather bed to lie down in at the end of this mammoth journey. Long gone are the days of ambiguous meat gruel, a second skin of road grime, and sleeping in faece-filled concrete pipes. I feel like I've retired from this world of struggle, and for the most part gone to cycle touring heaven. Onsens are everywhere though, on the ferry from Haachnohe to Hokkaido, there was even an Onsen on board with a few hot baths and accompanying showers. I couldn't find anything like it on my ferry crossing of the Irish Sea or the Channel.
After arriving at Fukuoka, Hiroshima was the next major city we came to. After watching England vs USA, we set off into the city's parks to find somewhere to tent. Waking in the morning, our first sight was the iconic Bomb Dome. One of the only buildings left standing after the world's first nuclear blast, it remained because the bomb had exploded directly above it, so the shock-waves were vertical and not horizontal. I later worked out we had camped about 150m from the explosion's epicenter. We continued on to visit the bomb museum: clothes and personal artifacts tell of lives snuffed out, what might have been, and the horrifying enduring after effects of radiation. The exhibits gives the human stories of the tragedy before going into the historical context, science or politics of the event. This order ensures the rational brain is not activated and doesn't shield the rest of the mind and body from absorbing the sheer emotional trauma. Alongside the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh, it was by far and away the most potent and moving museum experience I've ever been to.
At the end there was a technical video explaining the basic physics of the bomb. Two inimitably American children were watching this video on repeat, and exclaiming 'kaboom!' each time the video reached its explosive conclusion. This repeated excitement expressed in this accent in this setting by those so young was excruciatingly eerie and depressing. Especially when after years of restraint, 2019 saw the first nuclear weapons test by the US in a decade.
It was only from Hiroshima onwards that we could observe the hosting of a world cup in Japan. We finally started to see supporters over the tourist spots and in the restaurants, we developed a well-oiled roll-out of answers to the same disbelieving barrage of questions. We were now in the peopled heart of Japan between the major cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, this area is where most tourists normally swell, and where the majority of the games were. Our onward route took in the Shimanami-Kaido cycle route taking us from the main island of Honshu onto Shikoku. The route links 7 smaller islands, connected by dramatic bay bridges spanning hops across the Pacific Ocean. The first sign of the rugby was at night over one of these bridges, cycling past a traffic jam we saw a string of cars all watching a live rugby game on in-car TVs, encouraged by this sight we cycled past another seeing the glow of the mini tv. But there was not 30 men on this TV, but a naked couple engaged in hardcore activities. The startled lone driver was clearly not expecting any passers-by, and in making eye contact froze in shame at our bemused oggling and chuckling.
Despite being so distracted behind the wheel, Japanese drivers have lived up to their exemplary reputation and are so slow and courteous as to sometimes actually cause problems. Upon seeing us, they will slow to snail's pace, despite their right of way, which half encourages us to cross ahead of them, they are often too keen to give up their right of way. The other great bane to mooth cycling here is the concentration of traffic lights and their absurd delay in switching. Inevitably, on the quieter junctions we will safely skip the lights, and count ourselves to be the only people in the country to be doing so. After hundreds of times, we were finally flagged don by the police, played the dumb and confused foreigner in an 'honest mistake' and we were back on the way soon after. This is undoubtedly the optimal strategy with Japanese police who don't seem to conceive of semi-casual rule-breaking for personal advantage.
Our most significant run-in with the cops was in a mountain tunnel, when the echoing scream of sirens pierced through the motoring blare bouncing off the concrete walls. Within 3-4 minutes of taking the larger road, two police cars had responded and caught us in the middle of the tunnel. The ensuing mess brought out my passport and Rob's missing passport documents, within another three minutes a police van had arrived us to take us and the bikes safely through the tunnel and drop us off safely on a minor road. There was no animosity and little ego on display, just a google translated explanation of the road laws in Japan. The outfits stuck in the memory, matching the colour scheme of the thunderbirds uniforms, with the cut and helmet of the Star wars rebel fighter pilots.
The second sign of the rugby across the 7 bridges was less fleeting. Cycling in the morning, I saw three road bikes whizz, clearly unhindered by panniers. I didn't catch the conversation, but rarely have I been more sure of a group's englishness. At the next lights we caught up and started chatting, father Andy and two sons George and Edward were packing in some cycling to their family rugby tour. It was near bliss to talk rugby, politics and all the other standard pub subjects with them. As fascinating as Rob is, getting some variation in views and interests was both treasure and pleasure. I eventually unveiled Andy's work as current CEO of World Sailing an ex-CEO of Team GB during the London Olympics, following this discovery a thousand long-held questions poured forth, I'm don't know if he was as glad as I was for the long remaining ride. Soon after this, I also found out George's work in promotion for a large special-interest media ownership company. This auspicious meeting came at a time when we had been looking to improve the promotion and awareness of the trip, life had gifted us a morning's cycle with an interesting and connected family. Thanks to Andy and George for following up in their respective ways, we've been on the UK News and in a couple of local papers since.
Daily distances fell down to double digits, there is an intense cultural concentration in this area, every 20km there seemed to be a local wonder or Unesco stamped site. We knew we were unlikely to return to these backwater villages and towns, and so we the extra mile, which steadily progress towards our end point in Hokkaido. Shikoku Island is home to a famous pilgrimage through 88 temples linked with the Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Shingon is an esoteric sect, and retained mystical practices and learnings, whilst the simpler Amida Buddhism played to the common folk with it's cast iron guarantee of paradise in the 'Pure-Land' for those who called out to the Amida Buddha. In western currency, Shingon would be equivalent to gnostic christianity, whilst Amida similar to the Catholic church. We saw a handful of the most notable of the 88, including Kotahiru-gu, a temple complex set on an incredibly steep volcanic slope. Where even the surrounding jungle trees were struggling to hang on to the ground, the construction effort would have been monumental, even given that many of the buildings were of intricate wooden construction.
Just beneath this, we visited the famous Konpira theatre, the oldest extant Kabuki theatre in Japan, probably equivalent to the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Kabuki and Noh theatre are the two traditional theatre styles in Japan, and are at vast contradictions with each other. Noe will have minimalist sets involving just two characters - questioner and answerer, whereas Kabuki usually use elaborate and ostentatious sets with contraptions and other special effects and employ a large and colourful cast with multiple costume changes. Kabuki plays are often action-packed, engaging violence and saucy scenes throughout, whereas members of a Noe audience may walk out unsure if anything happened throughout the play. Historically, Noe was the cultural ground of the imperial court, the ruling Samurai and leading intellectuals - the narrow inventory of plays in the genre are highly philosophical and the language used is subtle and poetic, Noe actors were highly respected and even great lords would occasionally walk the boards. The origins of Kabuki are more carnal, originally the plays sprung up as side-shows in Kyoto's licensed brothel district, they were used to drum up customers and advertise the leading ladies. As the genre understandably gained traction, these now famous prostitutes turned actresses left their former careers all together. As outrage gathered, women were eventully banned from acting in the genre, due to the links with prostitution, and young boys were used to fill the female parts. This backfired when underage male prostitution became synonymous with Kabuki, and in the end only men could act in Kabuki. A sordid past next to Noe's comparative nobility.
On our way to leave the island there was a huge suspension bridge back to the main Honshu island, this was so clearly off-limits to even the most precocious and blundering of cyclists. An attempted dash through the toll-gates was noted and rebuffed immediately. The alternative was an additional 40km and an overnight wait for the ferry next morning, after slow cultural touring we were desperate to avoid delay. Once more, we turned to our 'brothers of the road', at the first time of asking Rob found a driver of a freezer truck who could understand our charades and agreed to take us across the bridge, bikes chilling in the back. We were overjoyed; rulebreakers in Japan are hard to come by. Up in his cabin, we had to hide behind his 'bedroom' curtain to get past the tolls. The thoroughly Indian concept of 'Juggah' (somewhere between 'just make it happen' and a 'botched job') is probably the most important attribute of a cycle tourist. As much as straining thighs, it is the bumbling luck of the way that carries one along the journey.
That night we arrived into Kurashiki, touted as the 'Venice of Japan'. It's canals and great wooden merchant houses reminded me my current home in Amsterdam. When you replace a car traffic for water in a city, something inimitable happens, a magical serenity results. The traditional and cosy Izakaya we found could was equivalent to the best Dutch brown bars, or Old English pubs - but clearly with superior food. This glowing atmosphere of Gezellig was torn from us by Rob realising he had lost the fulcrum of his possessions - the orange dry bag with money, credit cards, passports, sim cards etc. Credit to his temperament, he dealt with it with exceptional equanimity, but since my card loss in Busan, we had been reliant on the card and the remaining cash in the orange bag. In this tailspin, a young and glinting eyed Japanese man sitting on the corner of the bar came to us leading with his phone screen. 'Sumimasen, is this your team?', he had our website on the display, subtly noted down from my cycle jersey.
We began chatting with 'Tomo', he was actually planning a world cycle trip next year, had seen our bikes outside and had come to investigate. Over dinner, we gave our learnings on the practicalities of touring, he showed us the beautiful bike and elegant leather panniers he had his eye on, it was more suited to a hipster's afternoon ride down the canals than anything else. Eager to share and answer his astute questions, we told him all we could. It came to the bill, and my midnight round of ATMs met with no success, but when I returned empty handed Rob informed me Tomo had settled our bill and had invited us to stay the night at his place.
His comedic manner and electric disbelief lit us up after a long day as did his insatiable laugh, it can only be compared to Rafiki's (the monkey from the Lion King). His tiny one bed flat was packed with Manga and other books, in his possessions his quirk burst forth through convention. We slept well but tightly, and were packed off the next morning after Tomo had conjured a delicious breakfast from his single square foot of a kitchen. We tried to repay the great debt of dinner in the left-over cash I had, or in making a later transfer, all moves were rejected out of hesitation. He acted in the best vein of pre-emptive hospitality, eventually hoping for indirect reciprocation by strangers on his own trip - 'give and ye will receive'. Nevertheless, we both sincerely hope he cycles through Amsterdam and Banbury for the return fixture. This was another meeting gifted by the universe; we would have been washing dishes and without a roof, and I hope our torrent of advice will help him in a small way next year.