My first big decision of the day is whether or not to ride through a 1.5km (1 mile) long tunnel or whether to avoid it by following some steep mountain roads. A quick call to Paul confirms that I should go through the tunnel because the mountain roads are just goat tracks. See, Paul is an expert on Google Earth and street view so I could use the free wifi at the roadside rest area to ask him to check for me. My mother also advises (through Facebook) that I just use the tunnel because she’s sure Japanese drivers will be courteous in the tunnels so long as they can see me. My only previous experience riding through tunnels was in South Korea where I was lucky to escape in one piece but Paul and my mother are correct: I definitely could take the tunnel. But it took some getting used to because the sound of cars driving through was deafening and intimidating. It’d sound like some massive road train was bearing down on me at a hundred miles per hour and when the vehicle did finally go past it would be a little Dihatsu Charade cruising along at a little over 50kph and taking great care to leave me enough space to ride. By days’ end I was used to tunnel riding and grateful not to have to go up and over some of the mountain I shot through.
If I thought crossing a mountain pass heralded sudden changes in scenery then nothing prepared me for what popping through a tunnel can do. One minute I’m in a sleepy farming valley full of orange trees (I think I forgot to mention them in my last post) and the next I’m out in a valley with a massive and dominant river. There are no orange trees to be seen and I think the main industry in this valley was logging. I am just feeling happy because it’s a crisp 6’C, my breath is fogging out of my mouth making me laugh at childhood memories of pretending to be smoking and patches of fog make the valley look stunning.
I am struck by how Japanese the villages look. Yes, I realise that is a silly thing to say given that I am currently in Japan. But I had always assumed that the Japanese villages I saw on television and in the movies were stylised.
In the middle of nowhere I reach a long and high suspension bridge for pedestrians. Now I’m not that great with heights and suspension bridges are my least favourite form of river crossing but I force myself to suck up my fears and get walking. I am certain there must be something on the other side, given the enormity of this structure. Across the bridge I find a lovely but slightly neglected park. If I had the strength in my legs I could have taken a short hike up some stairs to a viewing platform but I need all the strength in my legs to cycle up the hills that I keep coming to.
See what I mean … hills.
I don’t like to compare countries but one thing I like about Japan over the other countries I have travelled so far is the food. I love Japanese snack foods. It’s relatively cheap (this filling thing was JPY120 – $1.50), fairly healthy (especially when compared with meat pies and packets of biscuits), portable (it all comes wrapped so I can eat it later) and tastes delicious. And you can buy it everywhere in any small roadside shop. Another bonus is that it’s clean … my stomach probably couldn’t handle another round of food poisoning or giardia or whatever I’ve had (my partner has an E.coli infection so that’s probably gone through me too in recent months).
I also love how there are so many temples and shrines here. It makes the countryside feel mystic and spiritual.
Speaking of mystic and spiritual places, I leave the main road to look for a geocache and find myself following a Kumano Kodo route for a short section where it follows the road. The Kumano Kodo is an ancient pilgrimage route that people have followed for over a thousand years to reach the three sacred temples in the Kii Mountains. The route is a sacred Shinto and Buddhist tradition and has been UNESCO listed (one of only two UNESCO listed pilgrimages in the world; the other being The Way of St James in Spain). The Kumano Kodo is strictly a walking pilgrimage but this short section is a paved road that cars can go on so it is okay for me to follow it. The route takes me past a number of shrines and temple ruins. The ruins are often marked with a single stone tablet and a nearby sign telling the story of the place. I feel a deep sense of something special here on this section of my ride. Perhaps it’s a premonition of what is to come over the next few days. But suffice to say I am glad that I walked up the first steep 1.5km (1 mile) section of the Kumano Kodo route today (I can’t quite ride up a 25% grade).
After getting up that initial climb, the Kumano Kodo is a stunning ride. I might have already cycled over 70km in the mountains but I don’t feel at all fatigued as I spin along.
And then I see these guys. I don’t know what the sign says but just seeing them makes me break out in laughter because they were not what I was expecting as I rounded their blind corner.
It seems that today I am just following where my heart leads. And as I drop down the mountain towards Hongu my stomach takes over because I have been told the octopus balls here in Japan are to die for (thanks for the tip Rene from Switzerland). I come to a screeching halt (well, maybe not quite screeching but it is a “feet down and brakes on” kind of stop). The man at the stall is old and looks like he’s been doing this for a while. He has a look of Japanese martial arts master about him that I can’t explain. I point at his wares (which he is cooking right there in the window of his stall) and he starts piling some into a container. I don’t know what it’s going to cost or anything but figure that it can’t be that expensive or he wouldn’t have this stall in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road. JPY300 ($3.30) later I have about 10 delicious octopus balls to eat. They are piping hot and the old man has brushed them with a sauce and gently sprinkled on something green and something flaky. His movements are so precise and meditative that it’s almost clichéd. What a great stop because oh the food was delicious!
The octopus man says “camping-ju … ka”. I know the first part means camping and that “ka” on the end of a phrase means it’s a question. I respond with “hai camping”. He says something and holds up his hands showing ten fingers and points down the road. So I guess there is a camping ground nearby. At the bottom of the mountain there is a tourist information sign. I cannot read any of the writing but I do recognise the picture of two A-frame tents on grass with a campfire. They are located not far from the sign so I decide to check it out (as mentioned yesterday, I have some personal concerns about the sneaky wild camp – I don’t do it at home so why would I do it abroad). The camp ground is in the town of Kawayu Onsen (cost JPY800 – $8.80). It’s absolutely beautiful. The lawns are mowed, the toilets are clean and heated, trees provide both shade and atmosphere, and a crystal clear river flows past it. Two Australians are camped in the campground and invite me to camp near their site, share their meal and socialise. They are the same age as me but have come to travel by a different route. We are the only people in the campground and as the sun sets we sit by the campfire. They’ve already been in Japan a week and are traveling around by bus (though they do have a Japan Rail Pass). I learn that the onsen here is on the river banks and that you can wear your togs (I can’t use nude onsen due to my being transgender). I also discover that they have some interesting camp stove fuel that comes in bricks. I take a photo of it so that I might be able to ask after it at a shop as an alternative to using my stove because I’ve not yet been able to buy camping gas (though I know it is available here).
And so ends another glorious day on the bike in Japan. I am definitely falling in love with this country more than any other I’ve travelled so far (even South Korea and that’s a big call because I love South Korea).