JAPAN, 16th – 26th April 2018
Walking through the terminal in Busan I was pleased to see out through the windows that the walkway we followed was leading us all of the way to the ship, and that we weren’t going to be forced onto a bus to leave South Korea as we had been when we entered. Less pleasing was when, halfway through this long walk, we came to a set of moving escalators that appeared to provide our only means of further progress. Now that my continuous line of self-poweredness had ended I no longer needed to worry, and so I stepped casually onto the escalators as if it didn’t bother me in the least. I then immediately panicked at the sensation of motorised movement and tried walking backwards up the escalators, until I realised that a) if I did that I wouldn’t get anywhere at all, and b) the people behind were getting quite confused and pissed off by my behaviour. So I resumed standing still and acting casual, as if this agent of mechanical propulsion was really no big deal to me, until we got off at the bottom and I started walking around the terminal in circles to try and make up for what had just happened to me.
It was another long overnight ferry ride to Osaka. Dea and I were put in separate rooms, divided by gender. Each room housed up to eight people, sleeping on mats on the floor. The rooms were absurdly small for such a number of people, so it was to our great fortune that the ferry was not nearly at full capacity. As a result Dea had been allocated a group room all to herself, and so I could sneak in and share it with her, and we had a jolly afternoon indeed watching Japanese baseball on the TV.
In the evening we reached Japan and watched from the deck as we sailed through a narrow strait near the town of Fukuoku. We passed under a big, well-lit bridge and saw the city lights, a giant ferris wheel putting on the most elaborate light show of all, flashing in different colours as if welcoming us. But this was not our stop, and we sailed on all night along the Japanese coast towards Osaka. At 5:30 a.m. I was awake before anyone else (except, I hope, the people steering the boat) to watch the sunrise. Alone on the deck I watched as the ship passed under another very, very long bridge connecting some of the larger Japanese islands and dodged between dozens of other smaller islands, many of which were conical due, of course, to the volcanic nature of the region. And sure enough, the sun rose between them, a glowing ball in the sky. We had truly reached the land of the rising sun.
If the view from the ship had been a good welcome to Japan, getting off it was anything but. First we had to descend another escalator, this one actually on the boat itself, to get down to the lower gangway. Once on dry land there waiting for us was a bus. Our bikes had been taken as cargo, so as foot passengers we had no chance of convincing anyone to excuse us taking this bus, so we stepped on for the ride, which took all of thirty seconds, and dropped us off at another set of escalators. There was no alternative way into the building, so we got on the escalators, then walked for thirty seconds to another set of escalators that we were forced to take to get down into the main customs hall. At this point I’d been in Japan for less than five minutes, and I’d been powered by more different motors than in the last five years combined. I enjoyed none of this, of course, but what it did show me was what an absolute miracle it was that I’d made it all of the way around the world without using motor vehicles on land. I felt so lucky that this hadn’t happened before. I thought about the many boats I’d taken in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and everywhere else. This kind of impossible situation could so easily have happened during disembarkation of any of those boats, and I felt truly blessed that it never had.
Greeting us at the bottom of the final escalators was a smiling Japanese man who held up a board asking us if we’d been to any farms recently. We answered that we had not. He then walked us over to our bikes and pointed at the dirt on them in a manner of friendly accusation. We shrugged our shoulders, and he told us that he would need to clean our bikes for us, at which news our mood brightened considerably.
“Thanks, they could do with a good scrub,” I said, but the man just took a single paper towel, dabbed on some disinfectant, then rubbed at the dirt around the bottom bracket rather half-heartedly.
“You missed a bit,” I tried, as he waved us away over to customs inspection. Here all of the bags of all of the passengers were being searched by customs officials standing at desks and the young one that I approached fairly balked at the sight of all of our gear. Still, he went on with his script, holding up a laminated picture board of fun and exciting things, pointing at them one-by-one and asking me if I had any.
“Do you have this?” he asked, pointing at a picture of marijuana.
“No,” I said, shaking my head.
“Do you have this?” he repeated, now pointing at heroin.
Then, as we finally got to the end of the picture board, another man approached and said, “You’re going to have to come with me,” and I feared I’d got one of the questions wrong.
The man led not only me, but also Dea and our two bikes, into a special room. I guessed this was because we had so much stuff that it would take too long to process us in the main customs hall. He seemed friendly enough anyway, as he patted me down, then took out a very familiar looking picture board.
“Do you have this?” he asked, pointing at marijuana.
“Do you have this?” Heroin.
“I’ve actually already done all this.”
“Do you have this?”
“Do you have this?”
Then, once the picture board had finally been completed for a second time, we were told that all of our bags were going to have to be searched, as the man explained, “In case you have any of these things,” which I guess means he hadn’t been listening. The bag search was indeed very thorough, at least for the top half of each bag. Our searchers tended to lose interest before the bottom, and not search very much at all down there, which is kind of funny, because the bottom of my bags is precisely the location where I would hide my marijuana, obscene materials and gold, if I had any. Which I don’t.
Once the bag search was finally completed, the real fun began, when the man, who was good-natured enough actually, asked me where we had travelled from. “South Korea,” I told him, “and before that we were in China. And as you can see from the map on my bike we cycled there from England.”
This seemed to satisfy him for a while as I began loading my bags back onto my bike, but before long he turned to me and asked, a little tentatively, “Sorry sir, but can you tell me all of the countries that you travelled to before China?”
“Okay,” I sighed, “Well before China we were in Kazakhstan.”
He struggled a little bit with it, but wrote Kazakhstan in Japanese down on his sheet of paper. Or at least I assume that is what he wrote, I cannot read Japanese.
“Then before that was Kyrgyzstan.”
He struggled quite a lot writing this one.
“Then it was Tajikistan.”
He didn’t even bother writing it.
He did okay.
A difficult one.
He’d never heard of it.
“Come on, you wanted to do this. Before that was Turkey, then before that Greece, Macedonia. What was it before that, Dea? Albania, yep, and Montenegro, Bosnia…”
We’d been in customs well over an hour by now, but I was at least having a good time. Eventually we got through all of the countries, and the poor man looked exhausted by the whole thing, and for a moment I actually thought we’d won. But then he lifted his head once more, and asked, “And how long did you spend in each country?”
Finally we were allowed into Japan, a little surprised to find that it was still daylight, where I celebrated by cycling around and around the car park a very great many times. Once satisfied that my second bus journey of the month had been sufficiently exorcised, we continued into Osaka. And what a turnaround in fortunes this brought! We knew that we would have to get used to cycling on the left side of the road again in Japan, but it wasn’t an issue in Osaka, because there were bicycle paths alongside every single street. Alright, maybe not all of them were really bicycle paths, but it seemed very okay to cycle on the sidewalks, because just about everyone else was. Not since leaving Europe had I seen so many bicycles, and it was a real pleasure to ride ours. Navigating the city was easier than I could have ever imagined navigating an Asian city could be. We stopped to do some shopping and were amazed by the rows of bicycles parked up outside the supermarket, and the friendly way in which a few people said hello to us. One old lady even gave us a couple of Yakult drinks each as a gift, with no expectation of anything, not even conversation, in return.
Our good fortune continued when we joined a nice big bicycle path alongside a river connecting Osaka with Kyoto. For 40 kilometres it ran through a continuous park where locals walked, cycled and exercised by waving their arms around in peculiar ways. It was great, the only slight issue being that every few kilometres we came to a barrier designed to keep motorcycles off the path, and it was a little tricky to get through with our loaded bikes. Still, we would very often have the help of a friendly passing Japanese person to squeeze them through.
After a night camping in the park we woke up early to see many people out swinging their arms around, but none of them were the least bothered by us. So we packed up and cycled the rest of the way to Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. Dea guided us to the most famous area, where the geishas used to live and now white tourists and Japanese girls in kimonos pose for photos. Kyoto had a nice, laid-back feel to it, like most of Japan actually, and we ended our time there cycling alongside a canal which is also, I think, a bit famous. Pink cherry blossoms lined the route. Everything was bursting with springtime colours, some of the trees and plants in Japan were so lush and green, and the blossoms so bright, I swear I saw colours in Japan I never saw before.
By our second evening we were riding up the eastern shore of a giant lake on another fine bicycle path when the heavens opened and we endured an almighty downpour. We camped in a park beside the lake and the rain continued all night, half-flooding the park, though thankfully our tent kept the majority of the water off of us. Before too long the rain let up and the sun returned, which was great because it showed us the better side of what was a beautiful lake. A small road along the shoreline took us away from the traffic through a lush green rainforest, dripping and shining and alive, until we arrived at a little beach where we swam and rejoiced at how truly awesome it was cycling in Japan.
Things got even better when we left the lake and started cycling east following a route of small roads I’d planned for us. Wow. We passed through peaceful villages with ornate oriental roofs on almost every building and little shrines and temples at every turn. Trees were trimmed into neat and sometimes bizarre shapes and there were still more colours to be discovered in the blossoms. People smiled at us and bowed in greeting and the little traffic there was drove with patience and care. The sky above us was a brilliant blue, and in pockets around us rose forested hills. We occasionally climbed up into these forests, where birds sang and frogs croaked beside bubbling creeks.
The next day we did more climbing through forested hills, though we made a mistake by trying to follow a walking path over one small pass that became increasingly difficult. In the end we had to take off our bags and carry everything up some steps to make it over. It was a bit of a waste of time and energy, especially as we once again were in a bit of a hurry, this time to make our final deadline, our ship out of Yokohama.
So as much as we were loving cycling in Japan we had to hurry for the next few days, as we followed the number 70 road over a quiet pass. Then we had a busier pass where the road was closed and we had to follow a diversion. Then at the top we found a reservoir where we swam. Then on the downhill I got a puncture and was glad I had my bike under control and wasn’t going recklessly fast like I might have done when I was younger. Then we were following a road by a river heading towards the really big mountains. Then we camped right by this road because nobody in Japan minded us doing that. Then Dea saw monkeys in the trees. Then we started cycling again early the next morning and we climbed slowly up and up all day long by the river on highway 19. Then we left that and went up on another road that went through a long tunnel, so instead of the tunnel we decided to take the small road over the mountain that had no traffic. Then halfway up a truck came and told us the road was closed, but we kept going anyway. Then we got to the top after a long climb, and there was a gate closing the road. Then we climbed over the gate and kept cycling on the closed road anyway, which was all covered in broken branches and debris. I was worried we would come to a landslide or something, but then we got to another gate and the road was good again. Then we were down in a valley, but we soon had to climb again, on another nice quiet road. But then the road became dirt. Then we kept climbing up and up to the top. Then we had a very steep descent which was very difficult because the road was still dirt and Dea hurt her arms braking so much. Then we were back in civilisation and cycled on some nice small roads again. Then we were cycling gently downhill and Dea spotted Mount Fuji in the distance, which was impressive because it was 70 kilometres away from us. Then we stopped to look at it. Then we carried on because we still had a long way to cycle. Then it was time to camp again so we found a little patch of land at the side of a small road and we stopped there. Then I said, “Come on, there’s things to do.” Then I looked at Dea, and I said, “No, let’s do nothing for a moment.”
And we stood there together, and we did nothing.
“It’s so nice to do nothing,” Dea said.
Then I realised how exhausted we were and how silly it was that we kept pushing ourselves like this. We were rushing through Japan, giving a country that deserved time to be explored and enjoyed almost no time at all. Before that we’d rushed across South Korea, and before that China had taken so much out of us, and I could see now that Dea was tired of rushing. We had to make our boat of course, but there was no doubt in my mind that things were going to have to change, that we were going to have to slow down and absolutely try to avoid having any deadlines in the Americas, if this was going to continue to be a way of travelling we both wanted.
In the morning we could still make out the snowy cone of Mount Fuji far, far in the distance, and we started cycling south towards it. There was another mountain range to get over first though, and as we climbed up into it, on another beautiful road, the skies began to cloud over. It took a while to get up the climb, then we had a long but very well-lit tunnel to get through. We’d hoped on exiting this tunnel to have a fantastic view of Mount Fuji towering in front of us, but bursting out into the daylight full of expectation led only to disappointment, for the only view we had was of thick cloud. We stopped beside a lake which was supposed to be the best place to view Mount Fuji, and stared up into the white cloud, hoping desperately that it might be kind enough to bugger off for a bit. But it never did, and we had to move on, glad at least that we’d got to see the famous volcano from 70 kilometres away.
We reached Yokohama exactly on schedule, spending most of our last cycling day crossing the giant Tokyo/Yokohama metropolitanmegamatropolis. True to form, however, it was great cycling, following bike paths beside rivers and canals and small streets which looked like they belonged more in small towns than a giant city. There could be no doubt that Japan was one of the very best places for cycling I’d ever been to, outshining even the South Korean bicycle paths. And it ended at Yokohama harbour at sunset, with the lights of the skyscrapers just turning on and the waters of the Pacific Ocean lapping into the bay. We had made it at long last to the end of Asia!
We spent two nights in Yokohama, staying with a very nice and very cheerful and very tall man named James and his very nice and very cheerful and not so tall wife Tamara. James was in his final month as a working man, having been in the car-seat-making-business for twenty odd years in a lot of interesting places like China, India, and Slovakia, and was presently busy planning a motorcycle trip from Vladivostok to Croatia, Tamara’s home country, where they plan to start a new life. Perhaps seeing my drawing of my heavily loaded bicycle on the cover of my book and mistaking it for a motorcycle, he had bought and read the thing, and subsequently he’d extended to us an invitation to come and stay, and with his house being a stones throw from Yokohama harbour this worked out very nicely for us. And when they heard that our friends, Jack and Barbara, would also be coming on our ship, the invitation was extended to them too, which made for quite a lovely time, with all of us together for our last night in Asia. Until, that was, James started talking about earthquakes and tsunamis and how there was sure to be one in Yokohama soon and how being so close to the water we’d have no chance, and then, to be honest, I didn’t sleep so well.
The next morning we said goodbye to the lovely James and Tamara and took a slightly odd picture of them with their cat, then we left for our ship. It was good to be cycling with Jack and Barbara, who we’d met first in Kazakhstan and then in Tajikistan as they made their own way across Eurasia, but with whom, until this point, we had never managed to cycle with. We got on very well with them, and were very much looking forward to spend the next two weeks together crossing the Pacific Ocean to Canada. And I think all of us got more excited when we got to the harbour and saw the Celebrity Millennium, the giant cruise ship that would be our vessel of choice. Everyone got a bit excited and silly at the sight of it, which is probably the only way to explain these pictures:
And then we went and got on board, relieved and happy at the prospect of two weeks without cycling and without deadlines. Dea and I had somehow been upgraded to a room with a balcony, which was amazing, and, leaving our bikes squeezed in there, we headed for the buffet. The sight of a large ‘Vegetarian Delight’ section complete with veggie lasagne seemed to confirm that this was going to be a great cruise. Suitably stuffed (though this was of course only the beginning) we then headed outside to watch the ship sail away. It was dusk, the lights of the skyscrapers and the ferris wheel were on once more, and this skyline cast against an indigo sky made for one stunning farewell from Asia. It felt so, so good. We had only gone and done it. A little over thirteen months since we’d set out from Edinburgh and the whole of Eurasia had been crossed by us, using nothing more than our bicycles and boats, two buses and four or five escalators. Now we were following in the path of the legendary Danish explorer Vitus Bering, crossing the Bering Sea (which I think was just called the sea when he set out) towards a whole load of exciting new adventures on the American continent.
OSAKA – KYOTO – YOKOHAMA
Distance cycled: 696 kilometres