Temple Naritasan Shinshoji (Honshu)

Narita isn’t a bad place to end my trip to Japan. It’s quiet and quite cute in a touristy way. There are plenty of souvenir shops, bars and fast food outlets all in a compact area focused on the Naritasan Shinshoji temple. I head out on the bike for a ride around and to look at the temple. It’s pretty and peaceful with large sprawling gardens and plenty of paths to take you every which way around the small mountain.
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A big ball decorates the temple entrance. It’s the time I’ve seen this in Japan. It’s more reminiscent of Chinese Buddhist temples than the austere Japanese ones.  photo IMG_6696_zpsaeof1f3q.jpg

As always there are many steep steps to climb. This is something I have come to associate with Buddhism: the penance of steps.  photo IMG_6698_zpsbobohvdi.jpg

The cute turtles in the wishing pond remind me of the temple Paul and I went to in Ipoh, Malaysia.  photo IMG_6699_zpswfl4tmsx.jpg

There are many many tomb stones in this temple grounds. It’s obviously been an important burial place for many many years. photo IMG_6700_zpsz3wnwxdd.jpg

This shrine is the centre piece of the main temple complex. It is very ornate by Japanese standards. Nearby some monks start banging the temple drums and chanting prayers. I stand a while watching and listening. The chanting and drum are enchanting.

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I buy a prayer board and write a prayer. There are coloured felt tip pens and drawings showing some beautifully decorated prayer boards. Most are simple and written in black pen but I go for something brighter. I am no artist so cannot meet the standards of the artistic examples but it’s the thought and prayer that count. photo IMG_6704_zpsuyace45c.jpg

I enjoy walking through the gardens. Many paths lead in all directions, mostly meeting up with each other at various points of the walk. It’s a perfect metaphore for life in that we all have to take our own paths.  photo IMG_6706_zpss8ycuopo.jpgAnd this is the centrepiece of the entire complex. This temple tower can be seen from all around Narita. It is proud and tall and elegant. It’s where all the paths lead. It’s by far the most decorative and glamorous of the temples I have seen here in Japan. The closest other temple was Nachi Taisha back at the end of my Kumano Koda walk all those weeks ago. But even that was just orange and not quite as elaborate as this temple and it’s buildings.

Mito to Narita (Honshu)

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I feel a mix of sadness and excitement as I set off into the morning sun on the final day of my bike ride through Japan. I’ve got the hang of cycling here now. I know what I like to eat for breakfast and when to ride on the footpath instead of the road. I recognise the road numbering system and can usually tell when a road will be hectic and when it will be quiet. Only 27 days ago these things were all new to me but I’ve adapted and come to like the Land of the Rising Sun.
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I follow the cycling path along a canal down and then some quiet roads along the river until I am almost at the coast. There’s something about a cycling path and a canal in the morning. It’s not yet hot but the shade from the trees is still welcome. The sun glints off the water and there is a sense of possibility about the day.
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Rice paddies and vegetable gardens slip past as I ride. I have become used to these sights over my past eight months of traveling through Asia. The seasons have shifted almost full circle and I have been privileged to see them changing from the comfort of my bike. Rice has been harvested, fields have been left fallow and rice has been planted again. The seasons and methods differ depending on where I am but the rhythm of a nature-bound landscape have remained the same. The other crops too have changed. Some are easy to recognise like potato, cabbage and strawberries. Others are incomprehensible to my eye. It’s a lovely landscape to cycle through.

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I reach the sea at Oarai. It’s Sunday and the beach is packed with Japanese surfers. There are hundreds of them sitting out in the sea patiently waiting for waves in the way I’ve seen fishermen patiently waiting for a catch. Is this part of the Japanese psyche? To be patient. Every so often a small set of little rollers comes in and the surfers work hard to catch them. The waves have little power and it is clearly tough work pick onto the waves. The waves are similar to those we sometimes get back home at the beach near my house but I’ve never seen anyone surfing there. In fact, I think you’d get laughed off the beach. But here, it seems to be the cool thing to do. I am sure the surf kicks up here when the winds and tides are right. There are many surf shops and the car park is huge. All day I will see cars driving along with surfboards on the roof. I can see why so many Japanese tourists take surfing lessons along the Australian coast; clearly the sport is popular here.

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Another popular activity here is motorbike riding. I finally get a chance to take a photo of some of the cool bikes that I have seen here. This whole set up with the high back seat is so cool. When the bike is in motion it looks like the seat back is pinned on with velcro the way it bounces around. But it does look so comfortable for the pillion when they are using it. It is also used as a backrest for piles of camping gear. The customisation of bikes here is fantastic too. As a motorcyclist this really attracts my eye. It’s custom everything: paint, seating arrangements and even engines.

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Of course I have to stop and enjoy the flowers while I still can.

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Near Kashima I start to cross the wide rivers that started as streams in the mountains all those days ago. There is a lake network here that looks like a huge inland sea. There are even waves and everything. Bicycle paths lead off around the edge of the lakes. I don’t know whether they go all the way around but it looks like a nice cycling option.

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I follow route 51 until I reach the Tone River. The road now starts to get quite busy and unpleasant so I check Google Maps and find that I can follow some more local roads through riverside farmland almost all the way to Narita. It’s going to add 10km (6 miles) to my ride but the decision to reroute is worth it. Instead of my final hour or two being hectic highway footpaths I enjoy one last spin through the rice fields and Japanese villages.

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About 10km from Narita I reach a gorgeous temple and shrine. It reminds me of the ones I saw on the Kii Peninsula. This place has spirit and soul. It’s what I’ve been seeking in the shrines I’ve been cycling past and now, on my final day, I find it again. I bow before walking through the entrance. I wash my hands at the hand washing station. I offer a prayer of gratitude to whoever might be up there listening. And I leave feeling content.

I’ve booked a cheap hostel in Narita. It turns out to be delightful with friendly owners. An hour after arriving I have found a bike shop who give me a box for my bike. The box is massive and will need to be cut down to size but at least I have a box and will be able to just enjoy tomorrow: my final day in Japan.

Four days in Mito (Honshu)

So I spent four glorious days in Mito. And what a treat it was. On day one I slept and watched YouTube all day long. I only left the room to buy food.

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One day two I sleep in, soak in the bath for ages (that’s my favourite thing about Japanese hotels) and head out to the lake again on my bike. The wisteria is in bloom and looks totally gorgeous. It’s one of the things I wanted to see in Japan because we don’t really have it at home.

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The wild flowers are in full bloom around the lake too. They make an amazing carpet of blue, white and pink. Wild flowers are so cheerful but delicate. It’s a gentleness that big gaudy tropical and subtropical flowers lack. Though I do like big gaudy tropical and sub tropical flowers too.

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Old men play chess-like board games in the shade. It’s a scene repeated in so many collectivist societies across the globe. The games are a chance to socialise, gamble and release some competitive testosterone. It’s not something I’ve seen as much in individualist societies like Australia, America and the UK. Men there still gather but it’s rarely in public parks playing board games. It’s more likely to be in the relative privacy of a bar playing pool or darts while drinking. Neither is better or worse, they are just different. And it is kind of nice to see the old fellas out enjoying the fresh air concentrating on their games.

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The swans here seem to own the place. One plonks itself in the middle of the path despite the many pedestrians and cyclists making their way around the lake. No one shoos it away. Rather, everyone makes a concerted effort to walk around the beautiful white bird. The swans look funny when they walk. They keep their necks bent, sometimes their heads are all the way down on their backs even as they plod across the road. Not to be outdone. Two more birds decide to set up shop on the pathway. It doesn’t take long for them to start fighting and chasing each other into the water. A black swan decides to check out the commotion and the white swans gang up on it. There’s an awful lot of honking and squawking before the birds settle back down.

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The black swans are sitting on eggs. Some have left their nests unattended, showing that perhaps there are few predators here. The swans that sit on their nests don’t seem too bothered by us people walking or cycling past. Sometimes they open their mouths at us but mostly they just ignore our presence. Some of the swans have cute little babies. I don’t know how anyone could consider these fluffy bundles of floating grey ugly like in the children’s story because they are adorable.

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I leave the swans to their business and head over to the other side of the main road to a big park. There are landscaped ponds and pretty paths through the trees. I can only imagine how amazing this must look when the cherry and plum blossoms are in bloom. It’s gorgeous even now after the weather has warmed up so the transformation between winter and spring must be stunning.

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There’s a shrine here too. An important one from the days when Mito was a castle city. It’s pretty but still doesn’t have that pull that some religious places have. I really can’t say why. It’s strange how in some places (like Hongu Taisha and Nachi Taisha) I feel a sense of spirit while in others it feels somehow empty. But it’s pretty enough to walk through the shrine.

On day three I again do very little. While housekeeping clean my room I walk down to the shopping malls near the JR station. I arrive just as the crazy clock starts to play the two o’clock tune. I have no idea that it is going to do this so am taken by surprise. It’s fun and cute and tragic all at once. The locals shake their heads at my videoing it but for me it’s new.

The shopping mall is loud and almost obnoxious. There are heaps of floors on which electronic goods are being sold and all are turned on with their volumes up loud. It’s epic so I take a video to share with you all.

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On day four I again rest and then venture out for a few hours in the afternoon while housekeeping are cleaning my room. Today I find a historic building and garden. It was built in the days of the samurai (from what I can tell from the pictures). This is the biggest difference between my travels in Korea and Japan. In Korea, the government tourism department is committed to creating foreigner-friendly tourist sites so everything is translated into multiple languages, including English. Here in Japan, nothing is translated (though I have started to notice that kanji is translated into hiragana because younger people today cannot read kanji anymore due to the introduction of smart phones and spell-check). But hiragana doesn’t help me much because I do not read Japanese. So historic sites are not so interesting to me because I cannot read the stories.

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Mito used to be a walled castle city with entry gates in strategic places. The gates have been retained or restored where possible. I wander along a road and pass two such gates. Here the signs are in English (random how the street locations are translated but museums are not). They tell of the location and purpose of each gate. There’s no big surprises here because the gates were made for defense and were built too low for mounted riders to pass through.

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As an old settlement, Mito also has lots of small shrines. I pass many on my walk. They are nice to see. I am fascinated by the way some are derelict while others are beautifully cared for. Offerings of tea and flowers have been left at this and many other shrines.

I didn’t do a lot on my four days in Mito. These little two to three hour excursions are the only times I left the hotel other than to look for food. For the first two days my body was fatigued. My legs and lower back were sore, and my heel spur was playing up from the pressure the riding has put on my Achilles tendon. I could have ridden on and created some sort of mini route along the coast between Mito and Narita but it was only 100km between the two towns and the hostel in Narita was fully booked. So, instead of splitting the ride with a wild camp (camping grounds along the coast are as or more expensive as hotels but do not have showers or wifi), I decided to stay put in Mito.

There’s something delightful about having a few days to totally unwind. I didn’t require much of myself. Other than the forays into the town I watched movies, listened to radio stations from home on the wifi, did a little work and surfed the net a lot. The surfing led me to some TedX talks, some YouTube documentaries and a real estate website from home. It was almost as if, having experienced so many new and amazing things here in Japan, my mind wanted some time to reflect and consider how to incorporate what I have seen and learned into the bigger picture of my life. I will be home from Wednesday night for 17 days. That’s a short time in which I will find myself racing around doing all the many things I want to do while I am home. It’s almost as if I need some time while I am away to relax and take stock. I did it in Daegu in Korea too and Melbourne when I was traveling in Australia. I wonder whether this will become my thing … to just lock myself away for a few days every few months while traveling alone. Only time will tell. All I know is that I enjoyed my four days in Mito where I barely left the hotel room but feel like I got an amazing feel for Japan and its people.

Rest day in Mito (Honshu)

Some days I just need to rest. As in pretty much not get out of bed. I think it’s an important part of my travels to have these days out. And in Japan the rest days are even nicer with lots of cheap business hotels where one can have the privacy of your own room complete with bath tub in which to soak your weary muscles.

I wake early with the sun shining through my open bedroom window. It doesn’t take long to shower and fill the tub with hot water. An hour and a half later I am a prune, have written some blog posts and am ready to get out. A short walk takes me to Family Mart for chocolate milk and sandwiches. I also stock up on some 7-Eleven onigiri for lunch.  All set for a day in I return to my room and relax.

I don’t leave my room again until after 3pm, letting house keeping know they don’t need to clean (that would require me to leave). But around 3pm I figure I should take a walk to the shops around the train station.  It’s pleasant to see Japanese youth relaxing at their version of a mall. The biggest product line in the shop is electronic goods. There is morr electonica here than I’ve seen in one place outside of Korea.

The movie cinema and games hall are popular but no films seem to be in English so I give it a miss. Besides, I kind of don’t mind heading back to my room to watch TV shows in bed. So I leave the local youth to their devices and wander home. 

My laziness extends to dinner. It’s just too early for any izakayas to be serving food (its just gone 5pm) so I take a seat at the Denny’s downstairs from my hotel. It’s tragic but true. For some readkn eating alone is not so bad at this type of place. So I do a fusion feed of Caesar salad followed by seafood udon. It’s surprisingly delicious and cheap. Sure, many hardline travelers will only eat local foods. But that’s just not me. And besides,  Denny’s is foreign to me because we don’t have it in Australia. 

So there’s my day.  Possibly the dullest blog post ever written buy such a delightful day.

Nishikata to Mito (Honshu)

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After a rainy night I wake to find that there are again plenty of fellow travelers at the michi-no-eki. I am pitched quietly away from the main crowd on a patch of fresh grass under a tree. I’ve run out of cocoa and tea bags so am grateful that the vending machine has hot milk tea available. It kick starts my day as I pack my gear and head over to the nearby 7-Eleven for breakfast. Today is just going to be a ride-through to Mito where I have booked a cheap room at a business hotel for two nights. My body and mind need a rest. I have some physical niggles in my lower back and left achilles but nothing that a rest day won’t help ease.
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The sun is creating pretty reflections off the rice paddies as I set off from the 7-Eleven for the 95km ride to Mito.
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I spend the day riding from town to town along the shared pathways that run alongside the main road. Most of it is good quality or at least passable. In some places I join the traffic but when I don’t have to, I just cruise along slowly on the pathway. I am traveling slowly (average moving speed of about 14-16kph) and Japanese drivers will just sit behind a cyclist until it is absolutely safe to overtake. So there’s no point holding up traffic. Every 10km or so I stop to use wifi at the now frequent 7-Elevens. I am definitely close to Tokyo now and the riding feels a lot like riding around Brisbane’s scattered outer suburbs. The ones that sit right at the place where rural farmland meets industrial factories and suburbs where car yards are more common than shopping malls.
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I stop a few times to watch the Japanese rice farmers planting their crops. Some use cute little tractors like the kind I saw in South Korea but these wider slightly less technologically advanced models are more common. It’s a far cry from the poor old rice farmers in Indonesia who plant every seedling by hand.

The ride itself is totally uneventful. I enjoy the ease of riding on flat country after a few weeks riding through mountainous country. I don’t even mind riding in urban sprawl because it gives me a chance to stop regularly to continue conversations with Paul and my family at home through Facebook Messenger and What’s App. It’s a luxury that I am enjoying while I can. The urban riding also lets me indulge for the second time of this trip in my favourite cycle touring food: McDonalds. Yes, that’s right, when I am tired, hungry and feeling a bit empty energy-wise there’s nothing like the familiarity of a high calorie hamburger and chips from McDonalds. It’s pretty much the same worldwide (except in Malaysia where they use palm oil, which has a distinctively disgusting taste to my pallet).
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I don’t expect much when I arrive in Mito. I have seen that there is a lake near my hotel so it will make a good navigation point. I turn towards it and discover that today is an important cultural day in Japan. I think it’s Children’s Day so there is a little fair and many families taking rides in the pedal swans on the lake.
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I feel incredibly happy as I sit there on the shores eating some snacks that I’m carrying watching the families spending time together. Children feed pellets to the swans and fish. Fathers pedal little swan boats. Mothers hold babies (is there a baby boom in Japan right now because I have seen so many babies). It’s funny how simple things can bring up such strong emotional responses when you are tired but content.
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I make my way to the small fair where I buy some food and a rainbow icy. Children look jealously at my icy while parents roll their eyes at this foreigner doing something so childish. But I don’t care. I want a rainbow icy and don’t feel constrained by my age (mid-30s).
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An hour later I am slowly rolling my way around the lake towards my hotel. I find it easily because there is a Denny’s downstairs and the Denny’s sign stands out from ages away. I check in, take a long shower, put my clothes in the coin washer, walk down the road for microwave food from the convenience store, and flop into bed with my laptop and mobile phone. I have no intention of moving again tonight. That’s what hotel rooms are for: total relaxation.

Marunumakogen to Nishikata (Honshu)

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I wake up early and set off into the spring snow. I can see why some years this pass is closed until the beginning of June; there is still plenty of snow on the ground even now in mid-spring. I’ve heard that this spring has been unseasonably warm in Japan so the passes have opened early. It’s lucky for me because it means I get to live a dream of cycling along snowy roads without the danger of slipping on ice (there is no chance of ice in this heat).

The road is amazing and it has taken all my self-discipline not to post a hundred photos of the snow-lined road because I know not everyone gets as excited about the white stuff as I do. That said, later I will come to a carpark where Japanese tourists are parking fancy cars and motorbikes next to a big pile of snow and taking photographs, so others must still like it.
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There is a string of pretty lakes up here. They are all high altitude lakes with impossibly blue water. I can’t help but wonder how deep they must be. Do they plunge back down almost to sea level or are they just little shallow ponds? From the colour they appear deep. Most are inaccessible from the road because there is nowhere to park and the drop at the edge too steep. I certainly wouldn’t like to try clambering down only to end up wet and cold in what must be icy water.
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One of the lakes is still frozen. It’s the first time I’ve actually seen a frozen lake before. Until now it’s just been something I’ve seen in magazines and television shows. The lake is only partially frozen with whole sections in the middle still watery. There are a couple of ice bergs floating in there too. They are not big like in the movie Titanic but they are there all the same. The water is so clear that I can actually see what they mean by most of the ice berg being below the water. It’s fascinating.
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I come to a small village-like area. I discover that on one side of the road is a car park and food stop while the other side is a camping area with some cabins. Many Japanese people have set up for the night in the car park and are waking up doing morning things like packing small tents, brushing their teeth and organising hiking gear. All are wearing fancy waterproof boots and technical clothing. Here I am in my t-shirt and shorts wearing nothing but joggers. I feel like I’ve turned up at a black tie event wearing a Hawaiian shirt. But it’s okay. I am just going for a short wander up the snow-covered trail for a couple of hundred meters. I wouldn’t actually go out hiking in an alpine area dressed like this. And I do have proper warm and waterproof clothes in my panniers (just not boots). I find a big flat plain under the mountain and a locked ski hut. I love alpine huts in Australia and this one is just as cool.

A short while later I end the climb, zip through a tunnel and am out the other side looking at the flat lands below the alps. I stop in a small viewing point and some Japanese people talk to me. It seems that every time I tell someone I am from Australia they have themselves gone there for a working holiday or for business. The lady I speak with calls her daughter (my age) out of the car. She went to Australia last year with her children for a couple of weeks. This connection between the two countries is strong and something of a passport to an easier journey here.
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The descent from the alps is wonderful. I go from about 1,700m down to 1,300m and come to a lake where fly fishermen are flicking their lines. Again, this is a first for me because I’ve not ever seen people fly fishing in real life either. I love how travel is taking me to places where I see simple things for the first time. I sit a while to watch the fishermen.
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Descending towards the Nikko area takes me into a new landscape. I imagine it will be dense and green come the summer. There are many hiker in this area and many car parks with maps showing the local trails. All the hikers wear small bells on their packs that I later learn is to let the bears know they are coming. I must remember to get me one of those bells for if I come here to hike.
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At Lake Chuzenji I start to realise just how busy this area is. There are tourists, both domestic and foreign, everywhere. And it’s still early by Japanese standards. I ride through, passing the massive torii gates that mark the entrance to the area.
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There is a huge waterfall nearby. Sorry for having to post a portrait shaped photo. I know they take up a lot of screen space online but it’s the only way to show its size and scale. I love the way the water takes many paths to reach the bottom of the falls.
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A tunnel of sakura greets me as I ride away from the falls.
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The map shows lots of squiggling lines that make up the road heading towards Nikko. It makes me worry that I will have to climb another pass. So it is a lovely surprise to see that the squiggly lines actually lead to a massive descent. In three kilometers (two miles) I go through more than 25 hairpin bends. It’s an absolutely amazing ride. I love watching the cars disappearing around the bends below me and then watching them reappear again.
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I reach Nikko and it’s packed. The crowds are overwhelming to my senses after being in quiet areas for so long. The area is famous for its temples but, as I mentioned earlier, the temples here in Japan don’t speak to me so I give them a miss. Especially with so many people packed in the place. Instead, I use the free wifi at the tourist information centre and then head to a chain cafe to eat. I ate at one of these back at the Fuji Lakes and know I can refuel on something other than rice or noodles for a reasonable price. I select chips, fried chicken and sauteed spinach with bacon. It sets me back all of $12 including the unlimited drinks bar (oh I make good use of that, believe you me). Not the most Japanese meal, I know, but I really am over rice and noodles. All I want is a big steak with dianne sauce and thick cut chips. But I have eaten Asian cooked steaks before and they are no substitute for an Australian pub so I will wait until I return home.
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Happily fed I set off again to ride the 45km to Nishikata where there is a michi-no-eki. I am glad that I am not cycling towards Nikko from this direction because there is literally a 5km line of cars going nowhere fast.
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Instead I get to enjoy about 10km of this beautiful narrow road through tall trees.
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Once out of the tree-lined road I am in a mix or urban rural landscape where small plot farmers grow food while houses and commercial properties compete for attention. Even here in the no man’s land that is ignored by all the guide books there is always something to be seen. And so ends a day that took me from cycling along a snow-lined road to what is probably the far outer fringes of Tokyo.

Takayama to Marunumakogen (Honshu)

As I pack to leave the michi-no-eki, more local Japanese campers start to talk with me. I love the fact that most speak little or no eigo (English) because it is refreshing to be in a place that hasn’t been totally colonised by the English-speaking world. Using sign language, a few known phrases, some guesswork, the map and Google translate (which sometimes makes strange incomprehensible translations) we manage some conversation. A man and his wife insist on buying me a drink from the vending machine. This is cycle touring at it’s best. When your guard is down and you are open to meeting new people with whom conversation is a challenge.
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And with a few sugoi‘s behind me I am off to explore the unknown that lies ahead (including the huge mountains I saw in the distance yesterday). My first stop is this strong statue. I leave an offering and ask for a safe journey. I don’t know whether that’s what one does at a statue like this but I just follow my heart to see where it leads.
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I enter yet another area of Japan’s agriculture industry: apples. The apple blossoms are flowering on these old trees. Many look like they’ve seen decades of seasons come and go with their thick espaliered branches. Oh how delicious it must be to come here later in the year when the apples are ripe and selling on the road side. I love to eat apples when I ride.
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There’s a high school baseball match being played. I watch as the boys throw fast and frenzied pitches, heckle the batters from the outfield and slide between bases. It looks like the nation’s baseball credentials are in good hands for the next generation. Like school sports everywhere, parents watch from the sidelines with picnic lunches while younger siblings look bored playing games on mobile gaming devices to pass the time.
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Like all who cycle Japan, I am becoming used to tunnels. They take the edge off climbs and are not as scary as I first thought (though they are crazy loud). The amazing thing about tunnels is that sometimes you can see the light at the end from a long way off. In this photo, the light is more than 800m (half a mile) away. In a tunnel earlier on my ride I could see the end from more than 2km away.
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I have not read any guides about what to expect along the way so am pleasantly surprised to come across Fukare Falls. The first I see is a gorge visible from the road. It’s stunning. The water surges between the rocks and trees, forcing its way every towards the sea. There is also a sea of people around walking along paths near the gorge. Men hold parking signs at almost every shop or stall on the road. I stop to buy an ice cream and am given a map. It’s in Japanese so I am still unsure as to what’s here but there are walkways shown on the map and the guy who gives it to me is insistent that I check it out. He lets me park my bicycle in his carpark for free (well, I did buy an ice cream). The falls are amazing! There are layers of them cascading loudly. The first one I come to is about 25m high and thundering. As I walk upstream I come to lower but more complex falls where water fans out across the river bed only to come together in a meeting of multiple drops. It’s spectacular. Like everywhere I’ve been in Asia, the people who created the pathway are more trusting of their visitors’ common sense than are our Australian officials. There’s hardly any railings or fences so it would be easy to fall in but no one is pushing or shoving so there’s little risk. If this were at home, I suspect a large mesh fence would prevent anyone from truly appreciating the beauty of the place (if we were allowed to enter at all; what with the ridiculous safety focus my country has). I watch the water closely. Eddies are clearly visible, ripples show shallow sections and I enjoy the sight of my first ever standing wave. No way am I ever going to be a white water paddler … that surge of power is frightening in it’s beauty.
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Leaving the waterfall behind I continue my ride. The road is climbing now towards the alpine mountains. But the gradient is not too bad because this is a major road that has been well-designed. I stop for a snack in a park overlooking snow capped peaks. A look at the map proves that these are not the peaks to which I am headed. I am going further east to where no snow is visible and I cannot help but feel worried that I might still miss out on seeing the white stuff. Though a quick refocus reminds me that whatever I find will be what I am meant to find, regardless of whether or not it includes snow.
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The weather has changed since I first arrived in Osaka almost three weeks ago. The days are now long and hot. With sunrise before 5am and sunset after 7pm there is plenty of time for the heat to sink in. The road is now winding along a cool mountain creek so I have to stop. I consider swimming but prefer just to watch from a rock and then soak my hat in the water to cool off. This would make an amazing place to camp with plenty of flat ground. But I am still not so sure about Japan’s bear situation. Later I will see signs warning hikers to wear bells and carry whistles to warn the bears away. If I came back, I’d want to do some research into this animal that is as much a mystery to me as some of Australia’s snakes and spiders are to foreign visitors.
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And then it happens. About 20km into the climb I come to my first proper patch of snow. I am as excited as a child unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning. It’s just a small melting lump of white frozen water on the side of the road but it represents so much. It means I have traveled far from my home to a vastly different climate. It means I have climbed higher than I believed possible. And it means that there is a possibility I might get to go skiing (only my favourite sport of all time). The cars and motorbikes driving up the mountain with skis and snowboards strapped to them only add to my excitement. But I still have about 10km to go until I reach Marunumakogen.
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And then I arrive. There is only one run open because most of the snow has melted but the resort is working hard to keep the money rolling in until the end of Golden Week in three days time. I hand over a wad of cash to hire skis and buy a lift pass. The guy at the information desk has told me that the run is 4km (2.5 miles) long and the longest I have ever skied is about 400m (1/4 mile) and it’s not like the money will still be in my wallet next week. So why not.
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I take the gondola to the top of the mountain. Yes, a gondola. This is a real proper ski resort with a real proper gondola. It takes about 15 minutes to even arrive at the top of the run. For someone whose skiing experience is limited to tow ropes and the odd quad chair where you are at the top before you finish blinking a fifteen minute gondola ride is out of this world. As are the views. No photo can do them justice. I can see everything for miles: mountains, lakes and skiers making their way down the run.

At the top of the gondola there is a large red shrine and the summit of Mt Shirine. A sign declares that we are at 2,000m above sea level and that the summit stands at over 2,500m. People carrying packs with pick axes and crampons are walking down from the summit trail and taking the gondola back down the mountain (well, some have special short skis that they are using instead). It’s all very adventurous and wonderful.
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Not so wonderful is my skiing ability. But that’s to be expected when you’ve only skied half a dozen times in your life. And that’s before you factor in the 55km mostly uphill bicycle ride I took to arrive here (my legs are pretty knackered). But if skiing is like surfing then the best skier on the slopes is the one having the most fun. And in that class of skier I am probably way out in front. I laugh and smile all the way down the slopes. This is happiness to me. And to get to do it for 4km is seriously unreal. I even open my wallet to purchase a second gondola pass (I misunderstood and thought I’d paid for three rides up the mountain when I had actually only paid for three sectors or one gondola ride) so I can go down again. My second run is much better than the first though I do fall over on one section. I am the only person in shorts and t-shirt and probably the only one on rented skis. The children ski faster than me and I don’t just mean the fearless helmets on skis children; I also meant the slightly more cautious 6-10 year old children. This two-and-a-half hours on the slopes is probably the highlight of my trip so far. Happiness is having a set of skis on a snow slope.
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The lifts stop as I reach the end of my second run and everyone is coming down the mountain to end the day. Signs show that the slopes close at 4:30pm and that’s pretty much what time it is. I still haven’t found a place to camp but spotted a disused carpark from the gondola. I decide to head there though I probably could have got away with camping in the resort carpark after hours (there are a few minivans and motor homes here that I am sure will be staying the night). But I am still a novice at this so start riding. The carpark that looked so close by is actually another 5km up the road. Along the way I pass two stunning high altitude lakes that I cannot reach (well, I could reach the second but it has no shores for camping and would require some downhill cycling and we all know what that means in the morning).
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I make camp in the gravel car park near the road. There are many deer up here eating their way through the spring grasses. At first I am confused at the sounds they make. It sounds like a high pitched whistle. But I guess you learn many new things every day when cycle touring, including the sound that deer make.
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The sun sets over the alps, I cook a feed and then retire to my tent to sleep. It’s been a huge and happy day.