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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Japan - Full Loaded Touring in the Land of the Rising Sun

Summary:

After their successful epic adventure in Bhutan last year, Kevin and Beer were hungry for a different but yet equally inspirational trip to take on some new experiences and challenges, see some interesting places, meet different people and sample some local delicacies. The pair had discussed a number of possible trips earlier on; including glacier trekking in Iceland and doing a crossing of the Sahara – but ultimately settling for something a little easier to plan (so they thought) and less dangerous while keeping the epic factor high enough.

Kevin and Beer began planning the cycling trip almost nine months before, mainly because Beer had to buy a bicycle anyway for his daily commute to class at Stanford and Kevin wanted to get used to cycling around on his bicycle. The rest of the nine months was devoted pretty much to planning the route, looking for accommodations, finding out what there is to see in each city and also to find out what local specialties in terms of food there was.

At the time, it seemed like an easy task. We did recognise, however, that to cram the trip into two weeks meant that our logistics and planning had to be spot on. Because we needed to be back in Tokyo by the end of it (supposedly to meet our old friends from Charterhouse days, Justin and Allan), it was critical that we actually made it to our destination cities on each day.

Loaded Touring:

Wikipedia defines touring as:

Bicycle touring is a leisure travel activity which involves travelling by bicycle for the pleasure of the journey rather than through need or to race. The range of cycling which the words cover varies from country to country.”

It has traditionally been more popular in Europe and in the US given the greater convenience of the sport and the variety of destinations to visit. With the exception of a few places, Asia in general has been less popular for touring – mainly because of horrendous traffic, language barriers and cities that are just not designed for bicycle touring.

Japan was considered to be one of the exceptions to the Asia rule (or so we thought!), with its many bicycle paths, dedicated websites on the subject and the fact that many people travel by bicycles.

Gear:

While we were able to use some of our trekking gear from the year before, particularly the clothes; the biggest piece of equipment were our bicycles. As we had to carry all of our clothes, gear and basic amenities with us for the entire 2 weeks we were there, we would need to have bikes which could withstand the distance as well as support the load of doing loaded touring. Even though we tried to keep our gear light, two weeks of gear and a bicycle added up to approximately 35kg in total.

Bicycles:

Beer's bicycle of choice was Cannondale T2 Touring cycle with Shimano LX hubs/rear derailleur, Shimano Tiagra front derailleur and Schwalbe Marathon Racer tires.
Kevin, with limited options in Singapore, ended up with a Cannondale Touring Ultra with Shimano LX hubs/front derailleur, XT rear derailleur and big Panaracer RibMO tires.

Both carried 2x Ortlieb waterproof rear panniers, waterproof handlebar bag and backpack.


We opted to skip getting a GPS device and rely solely on instinct and some dodgy maps which Kevin printed out before hand – probably not the best idea in hindsight!

Beer: veryyyyy dodgy!! I could not believe it when I saw the maps we were supposed to rely on…. In fact, I mocked Kevin for a bit for that - sorry mate, it had to be done :P

Kevin: All the hours of planning might have given me the false illusion that things were planned out properly. Most of the details of where to eat, places to see and such were ok, but the macro picture might have been lost in translation.

Photographs taken with:

Beer: Nikon D80, 18-200mm AF-S f/3.5-5.6 VR DX (Beer: same old as Bhutan trip)
Kevin: Canon 5DMKII, 24-105mm f/4 IS L, Rokkor 58/1.2, Zeiss 35-70/3.4, Zeiss 28/2.8, IXUS900 (Beer: super camera - love it. Kevin obviously has too much money to burn… I'm jealous!)

Preparation:

Kevin: With a good nine months of time, I took the time to do practice runs cycling along the coast in Singapore on the weekends. At first, I started off doing about 40km a day and eventually made my way up to 100km a day with the full load. Unfortunately, pretty much the entire path is on flat road so it did not give me much training for the uphill battles!

Beer: Like last year, I did not do any specific training for the trip. Although I guess you could probably say that the rides to school and back home was my preparation for the trip.

The Route:

Given that we only had a little over two weeks, the plan was to combine cycling with some driving and public transportation so that we could pass the ‘less interesting’ places to focus on some good riding while leaving sufficient time for sightseeing and taking in the “Japan experience”.

Our starting point would be Fukuoka (), a major city sitting on the northern coastline of Kyushu (九川), Japan’s most southwesterly main island and the idea was to make our way north through Honshu Island, south into Shikoku (四国), along the inland sea route back to Honshu (本州) and then continue our way towards the Japan Alps before coming down from Nagano (長野)/Nikko (日光) back to Tokyo

The entire distance between Fukuoka and Tokyo requires about a month or two of cycling to cover the 1,900km of road and mountains between the two cities. With only two weeks of time, we decided that aiming for about 6-700km of actual cycling was about right and combining it with car rental, train and bus would help us get back to Tokyo on our 14th day. That would then allow us 4 days to spend in Tokyo with Justin and Allan.

The main idea was to cycle as much as we could, see as many of the major sights as we could and eat as much local food as we could find. The route was designed to cover 8 UNESCO World Heritage sights out of14 designated in Japan.

Beer: …and that was after I told Kevin on several occasions not to be too optimistic…

Day 1 (May 30): Fukuoka to Hiroshima (広島)

We both arrived into Fukuoka International Airport after a tiring overnight flight from Singapore and Bangkok respectively at around 8 a.m. and the plan was originally to hop on the bullet train from Fukuoka and head straight for Miyajima (). But as Beer was unable to get a bicycle bag before the trip, hopping on the train was going to be a little difficult, so we opted for the next best option which was to drive.

Beer: The rule in Japan is that you cannot take bicycles on to trains, unless they are in bicycle bags with wheels detached. Since my bike was neatly packed in a box, I Thought I could get away with taking it onto the train. Kevin didn't think so, however, and so we didn't take a gamble.

Kevin: Whoever designs the first foldable touring bicycle is going to make a lot of money!

The drive to Miyajima was fairly long and so, at around lunch time, we stopped at one of the many rest stations along the way for a quick bite:

We decided not to cycle this part as there were not a lot of things to see and the traffic is notoriously horrendous, especially towards the Kanmon tunnel (関門国道トンネ) linking Kyushu Island and Honshu Island, clearing the good 300km by car in the morning and arriving at our first destination, Miyajima, at around 1 p.m.

Our first visit was to Itsukushima Island (), a UNESCO World Heritage site about 20 k.m. to the southwest of Hiroshima. Originally built in the 1100s, the shrine and the accompanying torii (gate) sitting in the middle of the water forms what is considered by many to be one of the “Three Views of Japan”.


Hiroshima's other famous specialty: grilled oysters:

From Miyajima, we drove the 20 k.m. along route 2 back to JR Hiroshima station to return the car and grab some dinner at Tokube (徳兵衛), one of the few izakayas (居酒屋) or otherwise known as Japanese pubs inside the station as the rain suddenly decided to pour down on us.


Okonomiyaki, one of the local specialties:

Stewed beef achilles’ tendon (牛すじ煮込み):


Neck of chicken with ponzu and yuzu-pepper sauce (せせりポンズ柚子しょ):


Grilled pork shoulder (豚トロ塩焼):


After dinner, we walked through Hiroshima’s Hondorii (本通) shopping arcade:


And then some ramen, beer and sake before heading back to our hotel.

At around 9 p.m., we began to feel the excitement from putting the bicycles together and the anticipation of the next day.

Kevin: I had done this process a dozen times or so but it still took quite a bit of time to put everything together and, by the end of it, I was dead tired!

But our anticipation took a quick hit as Beer realised his front brakes were not working. Since we couldn’t do much about it then, we decided to make it an early night and take the bike to the local Tokyu Hands the next morning to see if anything could be done to fix it up.

Beer: I was a little upset with the brakes but thanks to Dormi Inn's in-house onsen, I felt more relaxed by the end of the night. It was my first experience with onsen and I'm now a fan.


Day 2 (May 31): Hiroshima to Onomichi (尾道) (81km) – via Kumano (熊野), Yasu-ura (安浦) and Takehara (竹原)


We woke up bright and early to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial/A-bomb dome near the hotel at around 8:30 a.m. since Tokyu Hands did not open until 10 a.m. that day:

The actual atomic bomb explosion happened a few hundred feet from where the current dome was and the remnants of the dome are a haunting reminder of the events which occurred then and the fact that the structure withstood the 35 tons per square meter of force that was exerted from the blast.


From the dome, we headed back to the main street of Hiroshima to Tokyu Hands – where Beer fortunately managed to get his brakes fixed up and we headed back to Hondorii for a bit of breakfast at Matsuya ().

Beer: I was rather fortunate indeed that the guy at Tokyu Hands managed to fix it for me. What impressed me even more (and I'm really thankful) was that the man fixed the breaks for me for free! Oh, I also bought my bike bag for train rides here.

Kevin: We had spent a good half and hour the night before looking for bicycle shops in the area to no avail and I think that without Tokyu Hands, we would definitely have been in a bit of a fix!

Katsu curry breakfast for 500Yen.

By the time we were done, it was around 11 a.m. already, way past our expected start time so we started off with a brisk ride towards Kumano () along route 2. Thanks to Kevin's incredible (yeah, right) maps, we were not really sure where we were half the time before eventually reaching route 34 intersection at Kaita (海田) at around noon time. The result was that we had to constantly stop to ask the local people where to go… which did not always prove to be a good idea either (especially when they tell you to go the wrong way…)! Although it could just be down to misinterpretation?

From there, we took a beeline route up the mountain towards Kumano – a steep climb which, after 30 minutes we decided might not be the best route up with the 50lbs of gear we were trying to pedal up. Free-wheeling it downhill, we headed for the coastline on route 34 reaching a beach about 20km away from Hiroshima city near to Tenno () city.

Beer: The decision to turn around was a good one. Considering we haven't done any proper training for this, that slope would have killed us completely had we continued to fight it. Like in Bhutan, Kevin found it particularly tough going up hill…. (even though he would have you believe that it was his bike rather than his legs that could not cope with the slope :P )

Kevin: There were a few uphill battles, which were definitely more doable than Bhutan. I would like to be absolutely clear that it was 100% bicycle and gear related. With my bicycle and tires weighing 3-4kg more than Beer’s, add the extra camera gear and the 3kg tripod/ballhead, maps, confos, etc. (which ended up on my bicycle), I could really feel that weight going uphill. Fair enough it was my fault for choosing a heavier ride and bringing more gear. Slowly does it!

We continued onwards along the coast and eventually found our way through a couple of towns, including a 2 k.m. long tunnel near the Hiro () area, which was rather scary to ride through (it being dark with fast cars going past you constantly!). By around 5:30 p.m., we had traveled about 60 k.m. on the day and were nowhere near our destination of Onomichi. We were left with little choice but to find the nearest train station to cover the remaining 45 k.m. or so to Onomichi. We found ourselves at Akikawajiri station (安芸川) and were faced with our next task of getting our bicycles on the train (as mentioned earlier, the general rule is that bikes have to be dismantled and put in their respective bags before they can be taken onto a train).

As it was getting quite late in the day, Kevin suggested going for the “easy does it” way by taking our rinko-bukuro bags and covering the back of the bicycles – wheeling the entire thing into the last carriage, thereby disrupting as few people as possible.

Fortunately for us, the train conductor was extremely friendly and let us on – on the condition that we were to dismantle the bicycles by the time we got to our transit station at Mihara () before ongoing to Onomichi (Beer: I think the fact that we were tourists and threw English at the train conductor helped :P ) We decided it was better just to try and get off at Mihara and cycle the 15 k.m. to Onomichi since the whole dismantling and reassembling process would take a good 45 minutes to an hour to do properly. The conductor kindly told us it was better to go to the terminal station of Itozaki (糸崎駅) and cycle the supposed 2 k.m. from there to Onomichi.

By the time we got to Itozaki, it was coming onto 8:30 p.m. and the sky was dark. Without any bearing of direction, we went to a nearby police station to get some idea of where to go next and were duly informed that it was still a good 10 k.m. to our destination and we’d have to do some cycling in the pitch black night.

Kevin: By now we were knackered, disoriented and without a clue as to how far to go, but we trusted the policeman and went with the flow.

Beer: The policeman actually called the hotel and informed them that we were on our way there, which was nice of him. Despite the fact that it was pitch black, Kevin rode his bike extremely fast - much faster than during day time anyway… Kevin, you should ride at that speed during day time too mate!

Half an hour later, we rolled into Onomichi and almost immediately, Kevin spotted the huge Kokusai Hotel sign about 500m down the main road – we were so relieved that after a long day we were finally there!

A security guard greeted us as we pulled in but we kindly asked him to hold back while we took some celebratory photos of our arrival:

After 5-10 minutes of getting the photos shot, we parked our bike and gallantly walked into the hotel with all our bags and equipments – only to be informed that we had arrived at the wrong hotel (Onomichi Kokusai Hotel)…… (Beer: DOH!!) With our ego destroyed, we reloaded our bikes and headed down the road for about a kilometer where we found our actual hotel (Onomichi Kokusai Daiichi Hotel)… Finally!

Still covered in sweat and tired after the long day of cycling, we dumped our bags and made our way towards the JR station in search for some dinner – stopping first at Mister Donut for some long overdue stomach relief before finding a nice izakaya restaurant called Sakanatami (魚民) across the street from the station; pretty much the only place still open at 9:30 p.m. in this quiet town.

We then proceeded to stuff ourselves with food and drink:


Some Octopus in wasabi (たこわさび):


Horse Sashimi (馬寿司):


After a few sakes and beers, we were dead tired…

Day 3 (Jun 1): Onomichi to Takamatsu (高松) – via Shimanami Kaido (しまなみ海), and Imabari (今治)

Set to be one of our most exciting days of the trip, the route between the quiet seaside town of Onomichi to Takamatsu would take us along the famed Shimanami Kaido – a series of 6 bridges connecting the Island of Honshu and Shikoku (四国) via the inland islands (route 317). At 9 a.m. we headed off in search of our first connecting ferry from Onomichi to Mukaijima (向島).


The 7-minute 600Yen ferry ride got us to the quiet island of Mukaijima, where we began our leisurely 9 k.m. cycle across the island to get to our first bridge. The roads were extremely cyclist friendly and it was such a nice ride compared to the day before, so much so that we momentarily forgot how far we had to cycle on the day.

We sighted the Innoshima bridge (因島大) connecting us to Innoshima Island a few kilometers out and took a stop at one of the viewpoints. There, we met a fellow touring cyclist who was making his way from Hokkaido (北海道) to Kagoshima (鹿児島) by bicycle – truly inspirational. The man was probably around 80 years old and the distance he had cycled was evident with the worn pannier bags he had as he made his way to cover the 2,500 k.m. journey - truly epic!. Unfortunately, he left as quickly as he had shown up and we did not get a photo with him.

Cycling up to the pass to cross the bridge was not too tough but it was slow going.


This was one of the few places during our cycling which catered well to cyclists. The 800 m. long bridge had a very well done up cycling/pedestrian path underneath it.


Kevin: Innoshima was a little more lively, but in the wrong kind of way. Industrial plants littered some of the coast and it was a shame that not more has been done to preserve the beauty of the islands.

Taking a break along one of the piers in Innoshima:


Fields of Onions


Another vertical climb to get to the Ikuchi bridge

We stopped for lunch when we got through to Ikuchijima at one of the tourist rest stops at around 1 p.m.

Followed by some Tako-tempura before setting off for the Omishima bridge crossing.


The route along Omishima (大三島) was beautifully scenic but short and we ended up at the pass to cross to Hakatajima (伯方島) by around 3 p.m., and Oshima (大島) by 4 p.m. or so. The final crossing of Oshima was about 15 k.m. and took us to the final stretch of bridge a little before 5:30 p.m.


At 4 k.m. long, Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge (来島海峡大), the world’s longest suspension bridge structure, awaited us to take us to Shikoku Island…

By the time we got to Imabari Station, it was close to 7 p.m. and the 2 hour train ride to Takamatsu got us to our hotel at a little after 10 p.m. LONG DAY! We found a ramen shop in one of the adjacent shopping arcades for a few bowls of noodles followed by an early night.

Beer: Reflecting on this, this was probably the most enjoyable day of the trip for me. The scenic ride was challenging and yet not too tough for our level. Definitely gets my pick!

Day 4 (Jun 2): Takamatsu to Himeji (姫路) to Osaka – via Shodoshima (小豆島)

Having gotten our way down to Shikoku Island, we had to make our way back up to the main islands and one of the more scenic ways to do so is via Shodoshima Island. With only a ferry an hour to get from Takamatsu over to Tonosho (土庄), making sure we got on the 8:02am ferry was important for us to get to our final destination in good time.

Beer took a little extra time to get ready and we arrived at the ferry terminal ON THE DOT at 8:02 a.m.. So close that as soon as we got onto the boat, the ramp was yanked up and we were off. We got a quick breakfast of udon and tempura on the ferry as we mingled amongst the dozens of commuting factory workers heading to their jobs in the morning.


The 38 k.m. cycle in Shodoshima brought us through Ikeda port, Kusakabe port, Sakate port and then to our 2nd ferry transfer of Fukuda port. On the way, one of the main stops for us was the famous Olive Garden (オリープ園). Although Japan is not particularly well known for its olive industry, this olive garden stocked the fresh grown olive products and even had a restaurant serving olive based foods. The chilled olive soba was particularly refreshing!

Olive flavoured coffee:


While only 15 k.m. away from our destination, the next hour or two involved some heavy up and down climbing along the inland island coastline, and before we knew it, we had made it to Fukuda port just in time for the 1:15pm ferry back towards Himeji. To be honest, we thought the ride would be longer… no complaint though, it was nice to finish early!


Unfortunately by then, Kevin’s bicycle side stand had collapsed due to the weight of the bike!

Himeji port sits about 10 k.m. south of the main city, so once we got into Himeji at 3 p.m., it took us a good 45 minutes to snipe our way through traffic and end up at Himeji Castle for a good glimpse of the castle.

After a quick cool down with some icecream and freezies, we went towards Himeji Station in search for a car rental company to drive us the 90 k.m. to Osaka (大坂). Racing down route 2 meant that we reached our destination at Namba Station (難場), about 10 k.m. south of central Osaka and near to the famous Dotonbori (道頓) where our hotel for the night would be.

Having had a tough few days and a non-cycling day the next morning, we decided to indulge and sample some of the regional cuisine, and our hotel was helpful in pointing us towards Kozai (香西), a teppanyaki restaurant specializing in Kobe beef.

Kevin opted for the 120g Kobe beef sirloin with a piece of abalone whereas Beer went full on with the 170g Kobe beef tenderloin steak.

First off, some Kobe beef sashimi:

Some grilled abalone:

Chef Ken Ueno:

The chefs Mariko-san and Ken-san put their best efforts forward to ensure we had a good meal

In search for more of the Osaka experience and without much luck in finding a decent bar in town, we found ourselves in the red light district around Dotobori and decided on getting pointers from a couple of the many women passing out flyers on the street who swiftly took us to a small bar along the Dotobori river where it was 1,000Yen for all you can drink shochu – not too bad!

Kevin: All I can say was that this experience ranks among quite high on the strange scale. Given our general inability to speak Japanese and the bar staff’s inability to speak English, we ended up chatting to a guy sitting in the bar next to us who looked like he was a frequent visitor to the bar.

Things got stranger when we noticed that our shochu’s were mixed with some kind of unidentifiable liquid from a flask… very dodgy! So after one or two of those, we decided to move on… but not before sampling the snake sake!

We made the mistake of looking for a 2nd bar through the same means.. this time however, drinks were charged by the glass and somehow the tab got to 15,000Yen by the end of the evening and we didn’t even have that many! We belted out a couple of Back Street Boys/Aerosmith tunes and a round of darts before heading off in the early hours of the morning.

Beer: What a strange night indeed… but, funnily enough, I cannot say I did not have a good time though! Kevin will obviously confirm that my singing was fantastic!

Kevin: I will only confirm that Beer’s singing was less strange than everything else that night.

Beer belting out the tunes:


Day 5 (Jun 3): Overnight trip to Koya-san (高野山)

Morning view from our hotel:


We found some balance from the strange experiences the night before by taking a trip up to Koya-san (高野山) in Wakayama Prefecture to visit one of the most religious places in all of Asia. Needless to day, Koya-san is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Koya-san refers to a group of mountains to the south of Osaka where the foundations of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism are located. Situated almost a kilometer high in the mountains, the town is famous for having over 100 temples and shrines as well as the largest cemetery in Japan. And even though we were based at Namba station, the journey up to Koya-san still took us over an hour and a half, first via the Nankai railway to Gokurakubashi (極楽橋) followed by a steep cable car journey up the side of the mountain and then a ten minute bus ride from Koya-san station to the center of town.

Our accommodation for the night was Henjoson-in (遍照尊院), a famous shukubo (temple lodging) located about 10 minute walk towards the main gate (大門). The first thing we noticed was that the landscaping was beautifully done but, as we were a little early, we decided to head for the main attraction of the town – Okunoin (奥の院), the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi (弘法大), the monk who founded Shingon Buddhism in the 9th century.

Shingon Buddhism (often called esoteric Buddhism) is one of the major sects of Japanese Buddhism. Its difference to mainstream and Mahayana Buddhism (which are exoteric) can be summarized through the following:

a) Esoteric teachings are preached by the Dharmakaya Buddha, whereas the main principle of exoteric teaching is that all buddhas are manifestations of the Dharmakaya known as Nirmanakaya.

b) Esoteric teachings hold that the ultimate state of Buddhism can be communicated via rituals involving mantras and mandalas whereas in exoteric Buddhism, the ultimate state of Buddhism cannot be expressed in words.

c) Exoteric doctrines are supposed to be a provisional means to help individuals understand the ultimate Truth whereas esoteric doctrines are meant to represent the Truth itself.

d) Esoteric Buddhism teaches that Buddhahood can be attained in one’s lifetime by anyone, whereas in exoteric schools, it is much more difficult and requires a huge amount of time of practice and devotion to achieve (incalculable aeons of time)


One our way to Okunoin, we stopped for some set lunches at a local restaurant:

Okunoin refers to the central mausoleum at the end of the massive complex, but before we reach there, the immenseness of the cemetery is staggering. There are over 200,000 gravestones lined around the 2 k.m. long path up to Okunoin, including feudal warlords, heads of major corporations and politicians. Unfortunately, Kevin was not too keen to take too many photos in the cemetery and Beer decided to follow suit, so we only go the main path by the entrance:

The main pathway up to the mausoleum:

One of the many other temples:

Encountering a group of monks

Group of school children:

We returned back to Henjoson-in at around 5:30 p.m. to formally check-in. A few more photos of the temple:

Inside Henjoson-in:


Being low season, aside from a group of elderly people on their pilgrimage, we were the only guests in the ryokan and we took advantage of that with a quick dip at the onsen before dinner:

Onsen at Henjonson:


Dinner here is Buddhist cuisine – also known as Shojin-ryori, an elaborately prepared meal consisting solely of vegetarian dishes, normally extremely expensive when eaten at a restaurant but here it was part of our night’s stay. (Beer: I did not get a proper sleep there as I was really itchy night and I suspect that it was the food that gave me the allergy…)

After dinner, we went to look for Danjo Garan (藍)a temple complex which turned out to be extremely close to our accommodation.

After freezing ourselves off at Danjo Garan in our yukatas (pajamas), we retreated back to the ryokan for a quick bottle of sake and then to catch some rest. Overall, staying at a ryokan was a completely new experience for us, one that is very unique and spiritual. The one night stay, including dinner and breakfast cost 13,500Yen per person.

Day 6 (Jun 4): Osaka to Nara (奈良)

The main tradition of the shukubo in Koya-san is the morning prayer hosted every morning at 6 a.m. by the resident monks. Lasting about 45 minutes or so, the prayer consisted of the monks reciting verses as the chief monk saying a few words of wisdom for the day and also the lighting of incense for all those attending. This was followed by a quick breakfast before we had to make our way back to Namba to pick up our bikes and find our way to Nara.

Our original plan was to cycle southeast from Osaka through to the sacred temples of Horyu-ji and then reaching Nara by the evening. But as we wanted to get a bit more time to see the sights in Nara, we headed directly due east for Nara – hoping to find a pass through the mountains surrounding Nara.

Following route 702 eastbound and after about 15 k.m. we stopped for a lunch at a popular restaurant chain called Sato (さと) along the way. We both opted for eel soup rice (鰻ひつまむし), a superbly scrumptious do-it-yourself meal which filled us up for the road ahead. Finding a road leading up the mountain, we pedaled about 500m up the road before stopping to deliberate whether we were going the right way or not. Fortunately for us, a lady driving a Yakult motorcycle told us it would be rather crazy and dangerous to continue the way we were going and that we should turn back the way we came and head for north to find route 163 which would be a more viable way through the mountains. Beer then decided to buy a few yakults as a way of saying thank you (although the lady initially misunderstood that we wanted a few packs of yakults!!).


Even then, the cycle up route 163 was pretty tiring for Kevin and the weight of everything felt like a thousand lbs climbing the 300m or so of vertical climb, but once we reached the top it was 15km of almost complete freewheeling down to Nara which was a sensational but dangerous ride down as we hit speeds of over 40km/h on a busy highway. Nonetheless, from the base of the mountain it was another 12km or so of smooth riding to our hotel for the night near the JR Nara station.

After checking in, we decided to take our bike for a bit of sightseeing around town without our pannier bags. That felt good!

We headed first to Kofuku-ji (興福), one of the eight locations encompassing the World Heritage Ancient Monuments of Nara.

We continued east towards the Nara deer park

And then up the small slope to Kasuga Shrine (春日大).

World heritage site:


Before ending our World Heritage tour of Nara outside the main gates of Todai-ji (東大). Unfortunately we were a little late getting there Todai-ji had closed up by then.

Todai-ji:

We dropped off our bicycles at the hotel after that and headed back to Higashimuki Street (東向き商店), a covered shopping street in the center of Nara for some much needed grub. We wondered around for a bit and, in the end, we settled for yet another ramen meal!

Day 7 (Jun 5): Nara to Kyoto (京都) – via Uji (宇治)

Today was going to be a straight road north to Kyoto along the main route 22, making a quick stop at Uji City.

We had been fortunate up until now with the weather... but that luck completely ran out today.

On the way to Uji:


As the rain started coming down, we stopped for lunch at Coco Curry House a little early and found some awe-inspiring beef tendon sausage curry. For 980Yen, this might have been one of the best curries we’ve had!

After waiting outside the restaurant for a good half hour for the rain to stop, Beer decided that we should continue one and made himself some makeshift rainboots for his shoes:

Before our trip, Yumiko-san (Kevin’s friend who we met up with later on in the trip) had told us there was a famous green tea house well worth a detour in Uji, a medium sized town about 17km away from the outskirts of Kyoto. We pulled into Uji city just as the rain began to come down heavily on us, reaching the legendary Tokichi (藤吉) just after lunch time.

Green tea cappuccino:


It was great to have found some shelter from the rain and we ended up staying at the café for about an hour until the rain decided to subside a little. Great food and ambiance made it an extremely pleasant stop enroute.

Beer then realized his makeshift rain boots were coming apart and a walk across the street got us some gaffer tape to turn his pumas into fully waterproof boots. Beer: Genius!!

With just a slight drizzle going, we headed back onto route 22 along a narrow and busy stretch of the main road towards Kyoto, dodging many trucks which happened to take the same road as us. We arrived at the southern part of Kyoto at around 3pm when the rain started to come down harder and harder. Since we had to make another 7km or so to the north of Kyoto, it was not a very pleasant ride!

Kevin: Furthermore, our only map was not faring well from the rain and by the time we got to the JR station area, it had become almost illegible.

Beer: We were fortunate enough to find a couple of taxi drivers who seemed to know roughly where our hotel was and with a bit of luck, we made it!

We took a shower and rested for a bit after we checked into the Kyoto Garden Hotel. Once the rain had stopped we headed out towards the main restaurant and bar area of Kyoto, Pontocho (斗). Known for its preservation of traditional buildings and architecture, Pontocho has over the years been turned into a dining mecca, especially with the introduction of Kamogawa (鴨川) Noryo-Yuka terraces a few years back.

Unfortunately, because of the earlier rain, the outdoor terraces were closed and we had to settle for indoor seating at Hanameguri (華めぐり), one of the restaurants along Pontocho. The traditional looking restaurantservesfusion-esque version of Kyoto’s famous Kaiseki cuisine (石料理), a traditional, yet normally rather pricy set menu lasting 10-15 courses or so. Deciding for the full Japan experience, we opted for the full-on 12,000Yen Kaiseki course, which turned out to be pretty good!


We headed off in search of the center of the Geisha district Gion (祇園) after dinner with a rough idea of where the area was, but ultimately only stumbled into a shady red light district area.

Beer: this often seems to be the case when we are trying to look for something at night…!

Kevin: For some reason, all the interesting places seemed to be conveniently located in red light districts in Japan

We headed back towards Pontocho without much luck and found ourselves back along the Yuka terraces at a small pub/bar run by a friendly bartender/owner, and after a couple of drinks, we headed back to the hotel.

Testing out f/1.2 at night:

Day 8 (Jun 6): Kyoto (京都) (11km)

Kyoto being one of the biggest cities for sightseeing in Japan, meant that a full day was required to take in some of the sights, so we decided to take our bikes around town, starting first with the Imperial Palace – Kyoto Gosho (京都御所) in the North part of town.


Originally built as a residence for the Imperial family, it lost much of its function once the Emperor decided to reside at the Tokyo Imperial Palace from the Meiji Restoration in 1869. Not particularly designed to be cycled on, we ran a pretty high risk of blowing out our tires on the pebble paths. Nonetheless, after a tour around the palace, we headed back onto the roads to make another attempt at locating the Geisha area of Gion.


After several going back and forth in yet another lost in direction, we finally found the area just before lunch time and spent the better half of an hour looking for any sign of Geishas roaming the street. We only had managed to spot a Maiko (a young trainee Geisha) before we got hungry. We stumbled into Wabiya Korekidou (佗家古暦堂), a restaurant situated right in the middle of Gion and an institution known for its chicken dishes.

Following lunch, we headed down the road to Kennin-ji Temple (建仁寺,), the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, built in the 13th century. Considered to be one of the 5 great Zen temples of Kyoto (along with Tenryu-ji, Shokoku-ji, Tofuku-ji and Manju-ji), the temple contained a beautifully landscaped garden inside the main building of the temple called Chouontei Gardens (潮音庭).

We were also greeted with a large ceiling painting by Junsaku Koizumi (小泉淳作) a renowned painter who painted the Twin Dragons in 2002 – a 175 square meter piece painted in 2002.

Twin dragons:


We headed back to Gion’s main street in search for a photo opportunity with a Geisha but, according to one of the security guards who was patrolling the area, it was already too late in the day to see Geisha!


Beer: Instead of getting a picture of Geisha, I got a picture of a cute Japanese girl in kimono (or the summer version of it) that I saw earlier at Kennin-ji Temple…) So, slightly gutted, we headed off towards the main temple attraction of Kyomizu-dera (清水), a large temple complex built just at the base of Higashiyama. There, luck was suddenly with us and we finally managed to get some photos with the Geisha!


We cycled up as far as we could go towards Kyomizu-dera before the crowds overswarmed us and we had to push / carried our bikes the rest of the way up amongst the hordes of tourists.


One of the most significant qualities of the temple is that not a single nail is used in the construction of any of the buildings, and even the main hall perching on the side of a hill is constructed purely from stacking of planks.

The tradition of walking between the ‘love stones’ at Kyomizu-dera to establish ones fate of finding ‘true love’.

Beer: I had a go at this and missed the finishing stone by about a foot… -_-"


Otowa-no-taki (音羽の滝) is the set of three sacred springs sitting at the top of Kiyomizu-dera. It is said that the water from spring has curative and purifying properties.

Otowa no taki:


After our tour around the temple, Beer sat outside and did a painting of the Red Tower Gate and Three story Sanjunoto pagoda (塔) from the entrance.

By the time we were finished there, it was almost 6pm and we headed back to the hotel to drop of our bikes and decide on where to go for dinner. Without much of an aim (which had been the case every night so far…), we strolled around the surrounding area and stumbled across a restaurant – which was unfortunately full, but had an izakaya bar top downstairs which had two spare seats left in the house (out of 7).. just right!


Kevin: Arriving at this izakaya was a little different than before as we got some curious looks from the patrons there left right center!


We sat down and Kevin started trying to decipher the scribble of Kanji and Katakana on the ‘menu of the day’, the first dish he could make out was the “horse sashimi dish” – a definite gastronomic shocker.

Horse sashimi dish:


The above consisted of 4 parts of horse – the meat from the neck area, the meat from the main body, the meat surrounding the belly, and.. raw horse liver. Spectacular.


After a while of talking amongst ourselves, Beer encouraged a bit more social activity with the man sitting next to Kevin given it is customary for izakaya patrons to be chatty, so after a few sakes Beer mustered up an effort to initiate the conversation with a “Hello, are you from Kyoto?”.. a smile, followed by “Kyoto yes!” It was evident that our new friend’s English was going to be pretty limited. Kevin proceeded to start throwing in his broken Japanese and before long we had a conversation going with him.. A little while later, a woman came in, sat at the end of the table and started ordering strange foods and interesting looking sakes, and by around 10pm, Kevin had found himself discussing the merits of Japanese tourism to foreigners as well as showcasing some of the experiences so far.


The sake connoisseur lady at the end of the table introduced us to some interesting sakes as well as these enormous edamame beans (枝豆) called soramame (空豆) or Japanese broad beans.

Sora mame:


Beer then asked his identical twin (according to Kevin, that is), the 25-year old chef from Hikone (彦根) (the place we would be going to the next day) “Ichiban oishii no tabemono wa nan desu ka?! (一番おいしいの食べ物はなんですか?)” (Beer: Genius!) in the attempt to get the tastiest dish and we got some yakitori skewers… also absolutely brilliant.

Our chef:


Yakitori skewers:


Included in the yakitori skewers were: Chicken hearts, chicken livers, chicken wings, chicken meat and chicken gizzards. Did we say gastronomical?

Beer: the livers were delicious though!


Having already had a good a mount of sake, Beer donated some of his Thai Baht to the small ‘foreign currency showcase’ at the izakaya.

After a couple of beers, 6-7 glasses of sake plus a few 330ml bottles of sake later it was time to retreat back to the hotel.

Kevin: The great experience was completed by talkative izakaya staff, friendly patrons, great food and superb sake, making it one of my favourite experiences on the trip. It was here that I realized that having my limited knowledge of Japanese really went a long way!

The izakaya was called Un-mai (んまい): definitely well worth the visit.

Day 9 (Jun 7): Kyoto to Kanazawa (金沢) – via Hikone (彦根)

Our original plan was to cycle the 77km from Kyoto to Hikone and then hop on a train from Maibara (米原) to Kanazawa. After a lengthy discussion, we decided that if we were to go with that plan, it would leave absolutely no time to do any sightseeing in Hikone and we would end up in Kanazawa at around midnight.

We located a Toyota rent-a-car (this company truly was our savior of the trip as all the cars we had rented so far were from Toyota rent-a-car) a few blocks from the hotel and hustled it to Hikone via highway route 1, a seaside town sitting on the coast of Biwa-ko (琵琶湖), the largest fresh water lake in Japan.

Here, Kevin was on the search for another interesting dish.. Arriving right at lunch time, we stopped by the tourist information center to find out where to eat funazushi (鮒ずし), what can only be described as rotting fish sashimi. Said to be where the origins of modern day sashimi are from, the thousand year old dish is made using fresh carp which is packed into a pot with salt and laid to rest for 3-5 years underground. After a while, the fish is taken out to dry, rice packed onto it and put back into the pot to continue its decomposition. Yummy!!

Although supposedly a local specialty, it seemed that only few places serve funazushi – located about 500m away from Hikone Castle (彦根城) along the main shopping street of Yume Kyobashi Castle Road (夢京橋キヤッスルロード).

Funazushi (not for the faint of heart):


The puddle of mash is actually the fermented rice.

Slightly sweet, very sour and extremely pungent are the ways to describe this dish. Andrew Zimmern, the host of the show “Bizarre Foods” had one bite of this dish and could not have any more, and he is a pretty bold eater!

Kevin: It is definitely an acquired taste and while it sounds quite nasty, it is not as bad as I had thought it would be. It is almost like eating a slightly off and very smelly blue cheese.

Beer: When the dish came, I mistook the fermented rice for mash potato and had a mouthful of it… it was not a pleasant experience, I can tell you that much…

The restaurant shop:


After lunch it was time for a visit to the Hikone Castle and another painting from Beer. Completed in 1622, the castle sits in Konkizan hill and is considered one of the most beautiful castles in Japan – mostly because of its views of Biwa-ko from the top observatory and the situation at a decent elevation.

Hikone Castle:


Originally, Kevin had thought that the drive from Hikone to Kanazawa was a mere 50-60km, but it turned out that it was still a good 191km away! So after giving an hour or so for Beer to finish up his painting of Hikone Castle, we continued onwards to Kanazawa (金澤), a decent sized city sitting along the Sea of Japan known for its beautiful gardens, historic castle and of course, stunning seafood.

Arriving at around dinner time left us with little time to do some sightseeing that day so we had a quick bite near the station, ate a few Mochi Creams, paid a quick visit to the local arcade and then headed back for a dip in the onsen before calling it a day.

Day 10 (Jun 8): Kanazawa to Toyama (富山) – via Shirakawa-Go (白川御)

Today was to be quite a busy day, visiting all the major sights in Kanazawa, as well as stopping in Shirakawa-Go on the way to Japan Alps.

Our stop was the Kenroku-en (兼六園), a garden originally built as part of the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle and considered to be one of the three best gardens in all of Japan.

Kevin: I had been here during the winter before, and to come back at this time of year was well worth the trip.

Beer: Some parts of the garden were really beautiful. Looking at some of the pictures I took, they remind me of Monet's paintings!!

Kasumi Pond:


Hanami Bridge:


We walked back to where we started from for a walk into Kanazawa Castle – the biggest castle we were to visit during our trip. Originally built in 1583, the castle has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times since then, most recently in 2001.

Kanazawa Castle:


Going through the castle we made our way towards Omicho Market (近江町市) a market not too dissimilar from Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. In Kevin’s opinion, Omicho Market is probably the best place outside of Hokkaido for fresh seafood. Beer had been craving for his uni-don for better half of the trip and there was no better place to have it than at Omicho! We arrived at Kaisen Hirai (海鮮丼家ひら) at noon, just in time before the big crowds arrived, but even then we were stuffed like sardines into a table suitable for 2 toddlers - and we had to share that with two other Japanese girls.

Beer: I think they were laughing at us for a good part of the meal as well!

Kevin: Possibly because we seemed to be the only people not eating the mixed seafood rice bowl?


Uni-ikura don:


It was worth it though!

After lunch we made our way to Shirakawa-Go, yet another one of the 7 World Heritage sights we would go through on our trip. About 75km from Kanazawa, we reached the village of protected Gassho-zukuri (合掌造り) houses in the remote Shogawa Valley in Gifu Prefecture around 3pm and visited Myozenji museum/house/temple, one of the 80-odd houses in Shirakawa-go and often said to be the largest.


The upper floors of the building are used as a museum to showcase historic farming tools and local customs, such as the 300 year old ropes used to hold the ‘anti-fire’ frame above fireplace.

Myozenji:

Beer found himself looking for a good vantage point to paint his third painting of the trip and after traveling between the main town and the view point, we decided that the Wada House (和田) was probably going to be the place.


Wada house:


We left the village at around 5pm and made our way to Toyama, which would be our supposed base at the edge of the Japan Alps. Arriving just after 6:30pm, we checked in and asked about sending out bicycles via takkyubin (local courier service) to Nagano (長野) the next day, since we were planning on crossing the Alps via the Tateyama Kurobe Alpen Route (立山黒部アレンルート) and it would be difficult (if permitted at all…) to hand carry our bicycles across that route.

This was the turning point of our trip as it seemed that takkyubin services do not like to ship bicycles at all and to use a moving company would cost us about US$350 to ship both bikes through the Alps to Nagano – an option which seemed a little ridiculous.

After much deliberation and finding out that Justin and Allan, our common friends from Charterhouse (our boarding school) were bailing out on Tokyo rendezvous, we decided to spend an extra night in Toyama so that we could go up to the Alpine Route and then head back to Tokyo the day after tomorrow – thereby ending the trip prematurely… :-(

Bicycle parking in Toyama – I think this was the sign telling us to park our bikes too:


We got a recommendation from our hotel to have dinner at a nearby izakaya, which had almost completely indecipherable menus which turned out to be reasonable ok, but our spirits had been pretty bashed by then and we were still licking our wounds from the series of setbacks over the past couple of days.

Day 11 (Jun 9): Day Trip to Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アレンルート)

The Alpine Route was supposed to be one of the highlights of the trip, marking the final stretch of cycling to be done back to Tokyo. Nonetheless, going up into the mountains gave us some time to procrastinate and take in some of the breathtaking scenery at around 2,500m in altitude.

Although probably no more than 30km in total travelled distance (excluding the train to get to Tateyama), the entire return journey to Kurobe Dam would take us almost 8 hours to complete:

Since we had to make the return trip, it meant we had to ensure that we caught the last mode of transport back from Kurobe Dam, or else we would be stuck on the Shinano-Omachi (信濃大町) side without our luggage or a place to stay!

After a late start, we took a bus to Dentetsu Toyama Station (電鉄富山駅), for the 1hour train ride to the base of Mt. Tateyama (立山駅). This was followed by a series of cable cars, buses, trolley buses and trains which would take us to the top of Mt. Tateyama, through it, down the otherside to Kurobe Dam and back.


Arriving at Tateyama station, we got pretty hungry and found ourselves with little choice but to order some interesting sandwiches from the café at the station.

Beer with his New York Sando:



When we reached Bijodaira (美女平), it looked like we were in for yet another bad day as the fog had completely swamped the entire area. We were hoping that the 11,000Yen fare we each paid to make the round trip would not be worthless!

Fortunately, as we wound our way up to Midagihara (弥陀ヶ原), the fog went away and, naturally, we were in slightly better spirits.

Up the mountain on the bus:


Murodo:


One of the highlights of the route are the high 20-30ft snow walls surrounding the roads leading to Murodo (室堂), a high plateau just preceeding the base summit of Mt. Tateyama, but as it was near the summer period, the snow had already melted most of the way and we were left with 10ft high snow walls only in some places, and even then the dirt had begun to make it looks a little grimy!


Looking down to Kurobe Dam from Daikanbo (大観峰) with the mountains and nature surrounding us, we had a vague reminder of last year’s epic trip to Bhutan.


Kurobe Dam:


Kurobe Dam is Japan’s largest dam and is definitely one of the more spectacular sights on this trip.

We got hungry again and found a hotdog stand at the dam rest station before making a run back to catch the last ride of the day back to Toyama.


The ride back down just as the sun was setting was quite awesome and as the fog was setting in around the smaller peaks, it was definitely a scene straight out of a guide book.

View Down:

On the way back stopping at


Beer is knackered:


Arriving back at Toyama, we were once again without a plan for dinner, but as with any place in Japan it wasn’t long before we came across a Yoshinoya (吉野家) serving an unagi rice bowl for 550Yen. We intentionally picked this inexpensive restaurant since we had already been spending quite a lot so far and were planning on spending big in Tokyo to make ourselves feel better about this rather disappointing ending to the trip. We walked the kilometer back to our hotel, stopping on the way for a few shots of Toyama Castle:

Day 12 (Jun 10): Toyama to Tokyo

The next morning we decided to cycle to the station one hour early and try to pack everything (including our bikes) into our bags, get our bullet train tickets and make our way to the platform for the 3.5 hour ride to Tokyo.

Unfortunately for us, the transportation of the bicycles on the Shinkansen was a true NIGHTMARE. Firstly, Beer had been unfortunate to be stuck with a bicycle bag which was about as strong as a piece of paper – with no handlebars or shoulder straps to help him hold it. Kevin’s New Zealand made Ground Effects Tardis bag was sturdy as can be, but because everything was put in with the bicycle in the bag, it was heavy to say the least!Even with the 1 hour of preparation time, we only just managed to make it to the platform in time for our train.

Beer: This shall never be repeated again… EVER!!

Kevin: Seeing Beer cradling his bicycle in his arms with his pannier bags hooked around his arms like handbags on each arm was definitely a sight. I had a shoulder strap which helped a lot but it was still crazily heavy, so I can’t imagine how it was like for him.

But the fun does not stop there. Because we were at the top of the Japan Alps, for us to get to Tokyo meant that we would need to make a change at Echigo Yuzawa (越後湯沢), a resort town situated in Niigata Prefecture (新潟). The efficiency of the Japanese people meant that we had a total of 8 minutes to make about 200m from our platform, up the stairs and down the hall to the departing train… 8 minutes may seem like a long time, but when you are carrying bicycles with bags and big cameras it flies by before you know what hit you!

Beer: This shall also never be repeated again… EVER!!

We made it on the train just as the whistle was being blown and hunkered down for the final leg of the trip.

Making it to Tokyo Station in Marunouchi seemed like we had gotten to the finish line, but as Tokyo Station is about the size of 2 football fields, and probably ranks as one of the busiest train stations in Japan, it was not so fun trying to get ourselves to a taxi stand.. But we finally made it..

Beer: For me, that was probably the most tiring day of the trip. You would not believe how tough it was to carry my bike in that ridiculous bike bag (if it was actually designed for carrying bikes at all…), as well as the bags…

We checked into the Park Hotel Tokyo and went in search of a bicycle box for Beer to transport his bicycle back to Thailand…

After a bit of a rest and shower, we left for Tokyo Tower – only a stop away from our hotel on the Toei Oedo Subway Line, and around the area where we would be meeting Kevin's friend, Yumiko, for dinner that night.

Adjacent to Tokyo tower is Zojoji Temple (三縁山増上寺,):

After spending 30 minutes at the 1st terrace of Tokyo Tower, we headed back to Daimon station to wait for Yumiko to arrive.

Yumiko is a big fan of Okinawan food, so she was kind enough to take us to a Kyushu/Okinawan restaurant in the Shiodome (汐留) area called Kunpuu (薫風 くんぷう). Most of the dishes were unique and neither Kevin nor Beer knew most of them. However, the only one which Kevin recognized was the goya chanpuru or stir fry bitter gourd with pork.

Dinner at Kunpuu:


Seaweed dish:


As part of our final “Japan experience”, we went in search of a Cosplay bar. Cosplay has been around in Japan for a long time, as Japanese people try to blend fantasy with reality but we understand that cosplay/maid bars are a bit more of a recent phenomenon. Yumiko hadn’t been to one either so we went in search for one in the more vibrant part of Tokyo aka Shinjuku East. Unfortunately, we were later told that all the cosplay / maid bars close around 10pm (at that time, we were just finishing our dinner) so we did not get to have the experience. Anyway, the stroll around the area was interesting enough.

Yumiko asking the local police for cosplay:


Bye bye Yumiko!


From here, we continued on our efforts to stay up all night in order to see as much as we could before having to leave by meeting up with Kevin’s friend David in Roppongi-Itchome (六本木1丁目) for about an hour but by around 1am, the long day and being awake for 20 hours had taken its toll… we needed a power nap before stuffing ourselves with sashimi in a few hours time.

Day 13 (Jun 11): Going Home

There was only one place left to go in Tokyo, which was Tsukiji Fish Market (築地市), the biggest wholesale market in the world. Having strategically located ourselves in the vicinity of the market and after a 2-hour quick nap, we were up at 4:15am and braving the cold Tokyo morning and the ensuing rain, we hopped into a cab and travelled the 3-minutes to the main entrance of the market.

Main entrance of Tsukiji:


Arriving at 4:40am meant that most of the places were just barely opening up, but we spotted a queue building up outside Sushi Dai (寿司大), one of the dozen or so sushi shops lining the back street of Tsukiji Market. Not a mere minute later, we were hustled into the shop as the first set of customers of the day, brilliant!


This was to be Kevin’s 4th visit and having realized the hard way that the omakase set was not necessarily the best choice, we went ala carte. Ootoro, uni and sweet shrimp were the focus of the morning and before long we were getting pretty stuffed.


We headed back to the hotel after plopping 4,000Yen each on sushi at 5am and took another 30 minute nap before we had to get ready for our airport shuttle bus to the airport, which was our time to sayonara to Japan.

Concluding Comments:

We set out to do a cycling trip, but we ended up with a balance of cycling, driving, sights, food and experiences. Perhaps our expectations were skewed towards the cycling and therefore the inability to complete the cycling portion of our trip made it a little disappointing.

Kevin: Overall, the trip’s epicness started off in the right direction but the overly ambitious planning (mostly on my part) meant that it was a tall order to fulfill. In hindsight, either lengthening the duration of our trip or starting our trip from Kansai instead of Fukuoka might have given us a bit more flexibility and helped us reach our goal. Nonetheless, it was great to be back in Japan, to see new sights, eat new foods and experience parts of Japanese culture which I had yet to come across – even after so many times visiting the country. Ultimately, we tried our best so let’s make it a success next year!

Beer: First of all, I would like to thank Kevin for putting incredible effort into planning this trip while I was studying in the US - cheers mate, you did a great job - honestly (I could not have done any better anyway!!). I would also like to thank my parents for their support (as always!). Ok, now my comments…

Having spent a large amount of money on the bike, cycling gear and spare parts, as well as the build up to the trip, I am naturally disappointed that we did not achieve what we had set out to do. When we initially planned this trip last year, we were after another epic journey similar in scale to the Bhutan trek we did the pervious year. Even though this trip did not live up to our expectations, it was not a bad adventure by ordinary people's standard - and that includes us! Looking back at the pictures we have taken and reflecting on what we have experienced over the 2 week period in Japan now, I am actually, surprisingly, rather happy. This reminds me of the time I watched Lost in Translation (the film incidentally also took place in Japan) where I came out of the cinema thinking the film was pretty average and then it grew on me as time went by. Needless to say, we will cherish the positives and learn from the mistakes we made and better prepare ourselves for our next little big adventure.