Well, I needn’t have stressed too much about the issue of escaping Kansai International Airport. It ended up being quite easy. After waking up, I pulled my bike out of its box, took it all apart and put it in my big gear bag with the forks sticking out. I then packed all my gear into my pannier bags, making my kit look less like two massive items and more like something that fits on a luggage trolley like everyone else’s luggage. Then I walked out to the taxi rank and the rank monitor allocated me a ride to Rinku Premium Outlet, which is a big shopping mall on the mainland just across the airport bridge. It cost me about JPY3,600 ($40).
I am better prepared for the logistics of this trip than I was in Korea so once dropped off I took my time methodically putting my bike together. There is no rush and no point making myself stressed. An hour later the bike was set up, panniers mounted and I was ready. Yes, I could have done it faster but then I might have made a mistake (like in Seoul where I cross threaded a pannier rack bolt causing permanent damage to my front fork). The little mascot on my bike seat is Tozzie. He was a gift to Paul and me from a friend and I have been tasked with showing him Japan.
Within five minutes I am stopped again. Not because there’s something wrong but because I am having one of many firsts. This is the wonderful thing about the first day in a new country: there are so many new things that I’ve only ever seen on television or internet that I am now seeing for the first time. In this case, it was a simple urban park that caught my attention. It just looked so … well … Japanese. It was the rocks and the pagoda and the Japanese lady walking her dog. Wow! I really am in Japan.
Three cats seem to own the pagoda. They are huge. Despite its size, one hides from me by ducking under a bench. The other two just stare and seem to be daring me to enter their territory (which I don’t).
A little further down the road I come to what I think is my first cherry blossom. Despite the light industrial area that I am cycling through, there are still these beautiful pockets of colour and style. The pink leaves are soft and delicate compared with the rocks’ grey hardness. I can see why people go cherry blossom crazy because the flowers are so beautiful and when they fall it is almost like snow or something.
Just as it did for my first day on the bike in Korea, the rain is bucketing down as I make my way out of Osaka. At first I am in denial and ride in shorts and t-shirt. But then I give in and accept that it’s actually raining and I need to stay dry. After-all it’s only about 13’C and I already have a cold from Malaysia so no point getting sick.
The locals have a different way of staying dry. Everywhere I turn I see young Japanese women and men cycling one-handed while holding umbrellas. Older Japanese people are wearing big old-school rain jackets like the ones I have seen my grandmother and aunts wearing in Holland but the younger generation seem to prefer umbrellas to covering up their stylish clothing. Oh yes, that’s another thing I have already noticed: the Japanese are stylish. Last night as I lay on the bench at the airport I was passed by so many men wearing beautifully cut suits carrying briefcases and sporting stylish haircuts. I didn’t see a single poorly dressed Japanese person walking out of the airport. I am going to stick out like a sore thumb here with my two sets of uncoordinated clothes.
As I get further from the airport I notice more beautiful traditional style houses like this one. I get a deep sense of gratitude to be here. I am sure that to the Japanese drivers who were passing me it would be odd that I would want to take a picture of this building but it’s so novel and different to anything I am used to.
The riding today isn’t spectacular by any stretch of the imagination. A person could be forgiven for thinking it was a bit boring because I’m escaping an urban area. The traffic is relatively heavy, rain is spitting up at me from the road and the roadsides are lined with businesses like car yards, shopping malls and small manufacturing businesses. But this is normal when riding out of a big city, let alone one as large as Osaka. There are still ‘wow’ moments though, if you keep your eyes open. Like this gorgeous traditional house framed by a burst of pink. I cross four lanes of traffic to get to it and it’s so worth it.
It seems like a good moment to take a selfie. I use my camera so can’t see what I’m taking a photo of but it turns out well enough to share with you all. While I’m talking about crossing lanes of traffic, I have noticed that the Japanese cycle on the footpath in urban areas. Everyone cycles and everyone is doing it on the footpath. Pedestrian crossings all have a bicycle lane running next to them and the lights at the crossings are all automated; there’s no need to press a button to make the cars stop. When you cross you don’t have to look back over your shoulder because the cars will automatically wait until pedestrians or cyclists have crossed the road. It’s fantastic and I’m not bothered by the slower pace of cycling on a footpath because I can’t go much faster than 14-16kph (10mph) anyway.
I start to feel my lack of bike fitness as I climb my first pass of the trip. I’ve hardly cycled since I arrived in Busan in mid-October and I certainly haven’t cycled loaded since then. On the flat, I feel strong and am congratulating myself for putting in some good workouts at the gym and in the pool this past month to get my base fitness back to a reasonable level after letting it slip since Indonesia. But when I reach the road up Kyoshitoge Pass I realise that I’m going to have to ease into this cycle touring thing again if I want to enjoy myself. I don’t know how high the pass is but the climb is about 2km long and I have to stop three times to let my quads recover. There is heavy traffic on the road, with many trucks ascending and descending. While I don’t usually wear a helmet while touring, I helmet up here due to the risk of being bumped. The drivers are all courteous and give me loads of space and slow down when they see me, but there’s not much margin for error in the rain.
Once over the pass I enter Wakayama city. There’s a huge AEON shopping mall on the outskirts of the city (the AEON chain of malls was prevalent in Malaysia too) and then just urban jungle. I stop under a footbridge to escape the rain and decide what to do. As luck would have it, someone has left their wifi unprotected so I use it to look up hotels in the area. I check both Wakayama and the next city, which is 18km away. Wakayama has a hostel where a bed costs JPY2,700. The hostel has reasonable reviews on Booking.com so I decide it’s a sign that I shouldn’t try to be hardcore on my first night. So just after midday with just 35km cycling under my belt I check into this rather odd hostel that is actually some guy’s house where he’s converted spare rooms into dorms (or perhaps it was a hostel and he’s converted the common rooms into his house). It’s dry and I’m the only guest (until later in the evening when two ladies from Taiwan arrive to stay in the women’s dorm).
I spend the afternoon visiting Wakayama Castle (see next post) and then return to my bunk at about 4pm to have a rest only to fall asleep until after 8pm. I must have been tired from the transit from Malaysia.