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On the road . May 2008 . Thailand and Japan

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Internet Cafe , Kyoto, Japan, 29-05-08
A quick sorry...

This update is certainly a little late in coming. Sorry about that. We thought that we would have plenty of opportunities for wifi connections while travelling through Japan, but the fact of the matter is that outside the big cities, it is far more rural than you can imagine and an internet cafe far from the thoughts of the folk that live there. Secondly, we have been camping wild nearly every day and the only access to electricity is the small amount we generate from our solar panel and not really enough for me to sit and hog the computer, writing for hours. But at last, in between Kyoto and Nara, we find a campsite, where we can settle for a few days and get everything up to date. Enjoy!

Living it up in the City of Angels
It is the beginning of the month and we are still enjoying Bangkok. You can eat out reasonably cheaply, especially if you steer clear of Khao San Road. Though it is still full of low budget travellers, it's a far cry from it's former sleazy backpacker's hangout. Actually, everyone seems to have a lot more cash on them these days and the whole area could be likened to a cross between the cosmopolitan shopping convenience of Oxford Street in London and the chaos of Paraganj in Delhi. The Vegetarian quarters runs perpendicular and behind the Burger King and has free wifi from almost every restaurant. After trying several places in this area, we discover the best spot in town is No 1 Vegetarian Restaurant: one of the more authentic Thai looking places. You can't miss it.

Cycling around and you will realise pretty quickly that pollution is still a major issue here, but the streets on the surface, appear to be remarkably clean. We wander through the well known Lumpini Park on our way to find a bike shop and we could be in Regents-, Central-, or Vondel Park, except for the tropical flora and unusual fauna in the form of giant iguana like lizards in the lake. Noticeably, even the Thai people are scared by them. There is a little bit of Venice Beach here too with an outdoor workout area: though the equipment has seen the better part of a monsoon or two. Families are milling about, snoozing through the lunchtime hours on woven mats or just relaxing the afternoon away and the scene couldn't be further from the poverty stricken streets we saw just ten years ago. Poverty still exists though not quite as transparent as it was then. Newspaper's quote a minimum wage of just 194 baht per day; that's not much money at all and the old man who builds his umbrella house around him every evening outside the condo where we are staying is testimony to its survival.

We do some of those boring things that need to be done, when we get to a big city: Sony Cybershot camera needs it's lens cleaned again: Yep, again and the fourth time in nearly two years! My teeth get a thoroughly good cleaning from a periodontist's hygienist at As well as having one of the back teeth pulled, just one week short of my 44th birthday, my very first cavity reveals itself. Though a little more pleasurable than someone sticking there fingers in your mouth, finding a decent bike shop is also one of those must do tasks. We opt to go to Probike shop, however, in hindsight we should have gone elsewhere. The outrageous prices and total lack of customer service get the big thumbs down from us.

If you have been wincing as much as we have at every breakdown of Ali's back wheel, then you'll know that he needs to have it respoked. Probike do a shoddy job and then treat Ali with an arrogant defensive air when he complains. And of course spin a rubbish story as to why the spokes were not tightened properly. They reluctantly fix the problem, only after Aaldrik demands that it be done, like NOW, and not before removing his wheel and dropping the bike full on its derailler on the floor. Honestly, we should have known better. There are tell tale signs to watch out for: like a workplace the size of a postcard and a shop full of smooth handed sales people.

Just a day later we meet up with Christian again, who we met on the road in Malaysia and Franz, another perpetual cyclists and they give us the following invaluable bike shop tip: Sang Phet Bike shop / Charan Sanit Wong Road / Soi 132/7 Bangkok Noi 10700. They couldn't praise the service, pricing and friendliness enough, so if there is a next time round, we will make the effort to head on out of town.

To the land of the rising sun and beyond
Our flights are booked for Japan and we are getting pretty excited about another complete change in culture. Initially, we wanted to start the tour in the last week of April, but on the advice of several acquaintances, we postpone the trip until after Golden Week, which falls in the first week of May. Japan in general, is totally going to break the budget, but we both are adamant about going there, so what harm can a month or so do. To keep the costs down, we intend to camp at every possible moment and use couchsurfing and a small list of contacts as much as possible. Following this adventure, we will ferry across to Korea from Shimonoseki, where we are not quite sure how the rest of our trip will pan out. Intentions were to try and get a 3 month visa for China in Seoul and then after using a bit of public transport, use the time to cycle through Tibet. However, due to Chinas latest hard line policy on travel permits after the turmoil in Tibet and the ever-so conveniently coinciding Olympic Games, our plans have been quashed completely.

Rumour has it that Chinese Embassies around the globe are even going as far as to refuse entry to foreigners: saying that those wanting a visa should return to their homeland and apply there. Now apart from tickling my Mother every single shade of pink, this would prove a rather costly exercise and not one we are about to embark on. Besides, even then you only get a 30 day pass with absolutely no chance of an extension: so totally useless for anyone about to commence a cycling journey in China. Once again, we reach another point in our tour, where our plans have to be trashed and reassessed on the account of bureaucratic or political mumbo jumbo. And to be honest, we are not sure how this one will pan out. We both really do have our hearts set on cycling in Tibet, but it might just have to wait until another time.

Many happy returns of the day
After a ceremonial giving of newspaper wrapped presents, a celebratory Birthday drink and just 3 hours sleep, we leave our little Bangkok oasis at 5.30am on May 8. Ali gives me the wallet he bought for himself yesterday, but then finds out is not suitable. At this point of unwrapping my presents, I figure that the rest are just empty boxes but he proves me wrong by adding a new set of headphones in their own case and a suduko book to the list. We have hired a pick-up utility for the journey to the airport, which costs 1000 baht, but worth the peace of mind. Shooting past the highrised cityscape, a not so spectacular sunrise is well on it's way before I notice that we are using the expressway. Now if this were India, we'd be having a right proper row with the driver at this point in time over the toll fees. But this is Thailand and we have paid the 1000 baht fee up front and we can just sit back for the little over half an hour journey to the New Bangkok International Airport.

We have a total of 41kg of check in luggage and at least 7kg each carry on baggage without even weighing the bikes, which with a little help from Ali holding on to the rack while weighing them, come in at 28kgs in total: that's probably 4kgs lighter than normal. Oh, and not to forget quite a number of kilograms in electronic and camera equipment that I have hanging around my neck and stuffed into any available pocket space causing my trousers to hang precariously low and the reason for my cumbersome toddle. The girl at the desk is very friendly and she automatically offers us 3 kg extra each. This still leaves us with 22kg over the limit and at a whopping rate of 585 baht/kg it converts to a wallet lightening fee of 244 euros in excess charges. It's my birthday, so why not use this as an opportunity to round up a bit of preferential treatment. Unfortunately, the check in girl can't do anymore for us but calls over her supervisor, who immediately cuts another 10kg off. Just like that! Wow, this is the easiest it has ever been: no disappointed looks and grimaces, no pleading that later turns into threats or even crying tantrums.

Everything runs so smoothly and the China Airlines staff are courteous and super pleasant. When they find out we don't have an onward ticket from Japan, we must sign forms relinquishing them from any responsibility: stating we are aware that we have insufficient documentation on us. As I expected, the equipment I'm carrying in my handlebar bag causes a bit of a fuss at the x-ray machine and needs several scans before they are satisfied that the Beachtek DSX-2A I'm carrying is a XLR video adapter and not a weird looking detonating device. My steel capped boots have to come off as well, but I'm used to that by now.

Our flight is split in two, with a stop over in Taipei but only for 40 odd minutes. Just enough time to get off, walk through the transit area and on to the next boarding gate. We arrive at Tokyo's Narita airport at 6.30pm. Although we are a little apprehensive about being let in, mostly owing to the concern from the China Airlines officials back in Bangkok, it is the simplest procedure and we breeze through immigration without a question asked: though the latest thing is to fingerprint and photograph all foreigners entering Japan. A Customs officer asks us how long we intend to stay, is satisfied with our 35 day answer and waves us on. We find a suitable place in the arrivals hall to put the bikes back together and repack the bags. It's too dark to get any real riding done, but we have to leave the airport grounds because strangely enough it actually shuts up shop for the night.

We cycle out in the right direction, after a bit of disorientation and only have to go 5kms up the road before we find a perfect patch of grass under a tree and far enough from the road for comfort. My slight headache that developed on the second flight has now turned into a fully fledged migraine and although our campground is right under the flight path, I'm too sick and Ali too tired for the ground-tremoring rumble to really bother us. There's a petrol station conveniently down the road where we purchase fuel to cook a meal for the first time since China. Unfortunately, I am in no state for eating as everything that goes in seems to want to come out again very quickly. All I can say is: "damn that aeroplane food!" At least that's what I think it is...

Culture Shock of a very nice kind
Next morning we need to travel for at least 10kms before spotting a convenience store and somewhere to grab a bite to eat. It's yet another 7-Eleven. That confirms it. They've definitely got the world sewn up. A bit shocked at the prices initially but it's roughly the same as Spain or Portugal, so not that expensive really, just considerably more than we have been used to for a while. For you information, 1 euro is equivalent to about ¥160.

Our route is along the No 295 from Narita Airport to Narita City: there's a backpacker's on the main drag for ¥2700 per dorm bed per night, which is dirt cheap by Japanese standards. Boy, are we glad we have a tent! We then use the No 51 to get us into Chiba. From here, we basically intend to stay on the No 14 until we hit Tokyo's JR Central Station, (73kms 427m): This is easier said than done and we do stray just a couple of times, but considering we don't have a map, it's quite an achievement when we finally reach our destination. With all the traffic lights though, it does take us a full day of riding and the stop-start routine tries much of our patience.

As soon as we are in Tokyo we invest ¥3000 (18.50 euro) in a really good atlas: published by Shobunsha Publications, Road Atlas Japan covers the whole country at a scale of 1:250.000 (Hokkaido 1:600.00). It has cities and towns in both Roman and Japanese script. We later find out that the road representation is almost identical in actuality, which is pretty impressive. Only downfall of the book is that, even though it indicates mountain passes, there are no elevations and anyone that has cycled in Japan will know, that can turn an expected day trip into a couple of days of hard slog. Still, the main issue for us is a map with details of the smaller roads. Unfortunately, these are also not numbered, but with Ali's great sense of direction and power of deduction we manage quite successfully to get off the highways and into less populated areas in order to camp wild.

Japan also has an amazing network of cycle paths, but beware they are not signposted and taking one of them could lead you literally, right up the garden path as we find out on numerous occasions. And there is nothing worse than having to turn around and go back! Furthermore, the gradients that they consider cycle path friendly are little over the top for a loaded bike. It's often better to stick to the main road. At least you can see where you are going. On first impressions, streets are clean in and around Tokyo and although there is little sign of pollution, people strangely enough, still insist on wearing face masks: even when driving in their own car with windows wound up. Does seem a little over-paranoid.

Only making plans at Nigel's
Anyway the plan is to ring Nigel, once we have arrived at JR Train Station. Gerry, in Singapore, put us in contact with him and being another cycle touring fanatic, he welcomes us big time to Tokyo. Within 10 minutes of our phone call, Nigel is at the station and we are cycling back to his and Maki's apartment. Both have no qualms about putting us up for as long as we intend to stay in Tokyo. Initially we thought we'd be out of there in a couple of days, but what with their generous offer of accommodation, the use of the multi-media empire Nigel has built around himself, the uninviting weather and not to mention the exchange of cycle tales from far and wide, we are kept well and truly entertained for 5 days.

When it is not raining, we venture around Tokyo, on foot mostly. Subway and trains cost about a euro per short trip and each exit gate means one trip, so it mounts up over the day. Besides, walking gives a better orientation of the area around you and we are situated just a 25 minute walk east of Central Station. The electronic hub known as Akihabara is a whirl of flashing lights and a barrage of noise way beyond sensory overload. Things are cheap here in most respects, but not always so it definitely pays to shop around. And that is something you can definitely do here. One of the most amazing department stores I have ever seen before in my life and with absolutely everything ranging from suntan cream to the MacBook Air, is just to the east of the railway line. If this place doesn't have it, then I reckon you'll be hard pressed to find it anywhere else. We purchase a few goodies, which doesn't help the budgeting but suppresses the shopping urge for an indefinite period of time: a new mouse; extra 512MB ram for the laptop; burnable dvd's; a lead-acid battery (somewhat larger than we had in mind) for the solar panel; and a voltmetre.

As well as strolling down the main strip of the notoriously snobby Ginza area: where they say shopping is an ultimate experience, we also venture to the Imperial Palace and investigate the adjoining gardens before struggling no end to find the Patagonia shop in the Ogawamachi district. After the feet have just about given in and we have circumnavigated the entire district inch by inch, we finally discover the shop, tucked away in a side street. The only reason we are here is because Ali's latest Patagonia shirts (a little over a year old) have developed so many holes over them, that they are close to disintegrating completely. We gear ourselves up for the pleading but are welcomingly surprised with an immediate: "we change over". No questions asked and no receipts necessary: the best sort of customer service. The shop assistant clearly states that if there is any trouble then these can also be changed again! It's what you would expect from 45 euro a pop shirts, but the simple truth is you don't often get this sort of customer service these days. So hats off to you Patagonia and the staff at the Ogawamachi store. (2-3-18 Ogawamachi - Kanda - Chiyoda - Tokyo 101-0052 / tel: 03-3518-0571)

Good weather comes to those who wait
Disappointingly, the weather hasn't been the best while in Tokyo, so it's been great refuge to hang out in the apartment researching our trip further and catching up with news. We go out to dinner a couple of times with Nigel and Maki, once to Nawab, a very good Indian restaurant with an amazingly decorative toilet just down the road from where they live. But even more memorable, on our first night in Tokyo, they take us to a Monjya restaurant. Now, this food sort is not mentioned in any Japanese food or guide book I've ever read, but apparently it is famous in this area. To describe it in Nigel's words is to say it's a pancake in a blender, cooked on a griddle and as it turns out, that's basically what it is: an eggy batter with a variety of chopped ingredients, depending on your choice, cooked on a iron plate until the outside forms an almost caramelised crispy crust. The inside remains a little soft and doughy and it's absolutely fabulously delicious.

Eating out can be quite expensive in Japan. Both the restaurants we frequented are relatively cheap in comparison but still, a meal here will set you back between ¥1300 and 2000 per plate. That said they were all generous servings and the cost really only mounts up if you want to drink with your meal. You won't get much for under ¥500 a glass and that includes soft drinks and juices. Consequently, we eat in a couple of times as well, which is also great because I get to use a modern kitchen again: something, which most of my dinner party friends will know, I love to do. It's also a bit of a lesson in the ins and outs of Japanese food products, life and customs as well as long conversations about travel and contemplating the pros and cons of various cycling and camping equipment, linux versus windows which Nigel is passionate about and the cost and politics of weddings since Maki and Nigel are about to get married and before we know it, the sunshine is on it's way. We plan to pedal off on Friday and true to the weatherman's word, it is a gloriously sun-shiney morning.

Tomorrow is another day
Tokyo to Kamikochi (5 cycling days; 343km; 4437m)
Tokyo to Sagamiko (71 km; 473 m)
Sagamiko to Yamanakako (54 km; 1264 m)
Yamanakako to near Nirasaka (81 km; 532 m)
near Nirasaka to near Sjiojiri (84 km; 993 m)
near Sjiojiri to Kamikochi (53 km; 1175 m)

It's warm in the sun and cool in the shade and a nice combination of both to keep you happily cycling along. All except the traffic lights that is. Within the first half an hour I count 60 odd sets and then I have to give up, but it remains poignantly irritating that the first two thirds of our journey today are incessantly punctuated by them. Ever so slowly the cityscape turns into a semi-decent landscape and the traffic thins a little. Not half enough to make it a pleasant journey and it must be said that the trucks are a cyclists worst nightmare in Japan. Mainly because they barely have enough room for themselves in the lane provided, let alone trying to pass a loaded bike as well. We try the footpath, or so-called "shared cycle path", but it is so uneven, often too narrow for us to pass through, and so totally unpredictable, hence the road is the only option. Most of the journey (56kms) is pretty flat until we reach the Shiroyama Dam where we have to climb and fall dramatically over the next 15 kilometre stretch. Not too difficult but the roads are narrow and Ali is almost wiped out on two occasions, that I count.

Our route goes something like this No:20-18-41 and further No:20-16-413/412 and then we find ourselves outside Sagamiko Picnic Land, which sadly advertises itself as a Paddington Bear Campers Paradise, or something to that effect. Anyway, we optimistically go and investigate what they have on offer, but step no further than the gate, when they suggest that we should pay ¥5400 for the night. That's a massive 34 euros and then you have to pay for hot water and any other facilities you wish to use. It's not a hard decision to make and we are promptly back on the road in search of a decent wild-camping spot. We had already seen a few possibilities along the way, but turning back is not really an option. Later that evening, we study the folder the "la-la-land" camping ground had on offer and discover that they had tried to extort the Golden Week prices out of us. I only mention this now because it will not be the last time the Japanese Tourism Industry will blatantly charge us more because we are foreigners and something I'll get on the bandwagon about at a later date in the blog. Just warning you now.

Upon reaching the the town of Sagamiko (72km; 473m) we discover the local park but decide it's covered in a little too much concrete for our liking and opt to return back over the bridge to a camp area marked on an outdated local map a few hundred metres further up the road. It turns out to be a gem of a place. An abandoned camp site directly on the river. Only snag is, to reach it we need to navigate a steep winding path that gives up on the bitumen half way down. Tomorrow will be a killer beginning, that's for sure.

A little rusty round the edges
Doesn't matter, because camping is just so fine. Ali and I are at our best together when out in the elements and the weather doesn't decide to play too many tricks on us. It is obvious while pitching the tent and getting all the gear out for the first time since China that we need to get back into the rhythm of things: we are a little rusty. Still the peaceful and independent sensation of listening to bird song, while looking out over a surging river, fueled by a waterfall, framed by wild flowers, sprouting from the very grassed land that you have pitched your tent on nulls and voids anything else you have experienced during the day. It is now and it is beautiful and you really do enjoy taking it all in.

We purchased our food stocks quite earlier on in the day, not being accustomed to Japanese shopping etiquette and consequently, had to carry quite a load up and down the hills. The supermarket was called "OK Everyday Low Price", which with our budget, seemed the perfect place to shop. It definitely was and we are now stocked quite nicely on goodies and essentials for our future camping existence in Japan. We later discover that there are major supermarkets dotted all over the country and we don't get to enter the same one twice in two weeks of cycling. In one town, I entered a shop called "Halloland" and just down the raod was another monster-store entitled "Shopland". Jeepers, the marketing teams must have been racking their brains all night coming up with these names. To be honest though, you can get by with just the larger convenience stores. It does cost you about 20- 30 % more, but a Yamazuki or Pulses store has enough fresh produce for, as varied a diet as you should desire.

As we thought the previous evening, the climb up from our serene campsite is treacherous. We have to help one another continually. At the top, Ali sets the computer back on nought as he says it wouldn't be fair to include these figures in our distance measurements. And that's why I'm mentioning them now: A maximum gradient of 31% with a full 100 metre stretch of 25%. That's a morning's workout if ever a trainer could think of one.

It takes us 30 minutes to get to the roadside. We are in fine spirits and the sun is shining again as we start off on our journey taking us along the No 412-20-76 and finally the No 413. By lunchtime however, the sun has disappeared along with my enthousiasm a little later on in the day. My left knee hurts, my legs ache and all I want to do is get to the top. We have been climbing all day and the on the last stretch, following the Doshigawa River upstream to the fifth and final tunnel of the day. The only way I make it to the 1099m peak is to push the bike for the last kilometre.

So, where's Mount Fuji then?
Thank goodness, it's downhill from then on and sooner or later, we should be able to see the famous Mount Fuji. For such a massive mountain it certainly keeps itself well hidden, because even as we pull up towards the Mitsu Campsite at Yamanakako Lake (54km; 1264m), there's still no sign of it. The owner doesn't speak any English, tries to overcharge us for a gravelled plot and we hike out of there as quickly as we pedalled in. We follow the sandy shore line of the lake far enough away from it all and we stop in our tracks because, there she is before us: a breathtaking 3776m emergence of snow capped volcano shrouded in mist. You just have to admire the intensity of this massive rock. It's a unanimous decision to set up camp right here: in perfect view of Japan's iconic cone shaped mountain. When the clouds finally disappear, an overwhelming beauty descends over the lake. Yep, another ideal camping spot.

It is absolutely true, what they say about no-one really bothering you while camping wild in Japan. In fact, I'd even say, they go out of their way to totally ignore what you are doing, which does feel a little strange at first, but hey you get used to it. There are plenty of fisherman on Lake Yamanakako who go about their business as if we are invisible. No-one says hello or good morning as they pass, except an old fellow, who speaks a few words of English. And I'm sure that is probably part of the problem. As we have quickly found out, not a lot of people can speak English and since the Japanese are pretty well-known for their reserved nature when it comes to using a language they haven't mastered, it is possibly easier for them to look the other way and walk on. You'll have no problems though, if you approach them. So far, we have found everyone to be friendly and helpful.

Ali "Udon" Mulder
The following morning, we leave Mount Fuji behind us but her cloud cloaked presence remains until late afternoon when we turn off onto highway No 358. We initially trundle along highways 138 and 139, which are packed with traffic, very narrow and have a half decent shoulder for us some of the way. We pass over a section of road that is actually heated: Talk about opulence! Apparently, it freezes here due to it always being in the shade and in close proximity to ice-caves. I must admit, it was pretty cold riding through here, but for the rest of the day the weather is mild and pleasant.

We pass through a 1.5km long tunnel, which is well lit but still no fun at all. The coast down into Kofu was though. Here we shop and plan to travel to Chiyodako Lake for an overnight stay. We end up cycling all over the place, through backyard paddys, along windy sidestreets and including up a massive hill to an elderly people's home before realising that the lake is over a mountain pass and it's too late to start tackling that. We just cycle out of the city and find a wild-flowered spot near Nirasaka (81km; 532m) on the river.

Up until now, nearly every day we have had udon noodles for dinner. I ask each time I shop, what Ali feels like for dinner, but the answer is always the same. He even jokes about changing his name to Ali Udon, which does have a certain ring to it, I must say. But seriously, they are delicious and very cheap. You can pick up a packet for as little as ¥20. A couple of packs, some vegetables, bean curd and flavouring and you've got yourself a pretty nutritious meal for extremely little cost. So, from a cyclists point of view, Japan doesn't have to be that expensive at all. You can camp everywhere for free, filter your water from the copious supply of fresh running rivers and streams and cook your own meals.

Obviously it depends on where you shop, but here's an indication of the prices of some products in Japan:

vending machine
soft drink:
coffee hot/cold

apples / oranges

2 litre
200ml can
per kg
big (each)
4-6 piece


bento lunch box
soba noodle box
udon noodle meal
processed cheese
udon noodles (fresh)
soba noodles (dry)
rice crackers
custard cream buns
bread (white)

per box
tray (supermarket)
meal (restaurant)
220g packet
400g packet
200-250 gm pack
130-150g packet
5 piece per packet
half loaf








* (at the time of writing 100 Japanese Yen = 0,62 Euro cents)

Doing your noodle in over a lack of rubbish bins
The supermarkets are something else. Firstly, they are massive and without a doubt, you'll get lost trying to find what you want. Secondly, the produce is very good, very fresh and most things are reasonably cheap. Mushrooms that you would have to earn a full day's wages for in Europe, cost absolutely nothing, as does the tofu of every delicious description and variety. Beansprouts and green leafy products are also inexpensive. Tomatoes on the other hand cost a small fortune. So does cooking oil and cheese is pretty much out of the question as an everyday commodity. Thirdly, bread only comes in a half loaf size and it is more commonly cut either in 6, 5 or 4 slices. Imagine a half loaf of bread in just 4 slices! The traditional sandwich is impossible to get your mouth around. Gives totally a new meaning to the word "jawbreaker." Every now and again, I manage to find an 8-slice pack, which is a little thicker than a the western idea of thick sliced bread. Lastly, the packaging will blow your mind. Everything is in a tray, which is covered twice or even thrice with further plastic. Dry products have an oxygen absorber sachet inside and then when you get to the cash register, they'll shove all these items into even more plastic. Nigel taught me the phrase "sore name de", which means "as it is". It has certainly come in handy!

This over abundance of supermarket plastic all seems a little strange, when there are signs everywhere about the environment, littering and their obsessive concern about dropping cigarette butts on the ground. Not that any of this signage is very effective. Part of the problem is trying to find a rubbish bin in the first place. Very, very infuriatingly, there just aren't any! Vending machines and convenience stores are your best bet, but quite often it will only be for glass and pet bottles, cans and if you are super lucky, burnable rubbish. There's nowhere to get rid of the real rubbish, which I can tell you amounts up pretty quickly with all the packaging.

Consequently, the roadsides are covered with cans, bottles (mostly in the form of broken glass), used chopsticks, plastic bento boxes and snack packets. Furthermore, just like everywhere else in the world, wild dumping is a big problem. This in mind, we were both a little offended at the older gentleman, who especially goes out of his way to drive his car up to us while we are eating our lunch roadside and beckons in crude hand signals that we must not dump our rubbish on the ground. Obviously, this person is adamant that foreigners are the cause of the Japanese litter problem. Well, I can tell him that visitors to his country don't normally carry speaker boxes, televisions and refrigerators, along with soiled babies' nappies and other similar refuse to ditch on the side of the road. Maybe he should look in his own backyard first, if he really wants to do something about solving the problem and leave a couple of environmentally aware cyclists in peace to eat their lunch.

Sakura, sakura... cherry blossom pink and white...
While we may have missed the cherry blossom season by a few weeks, the landscape nevertheless dishes up a beautiful array of wild flowers and scents: admiring the cornflowers, primroses, irises of every colour, azaleas, daisies and of course the rice paddied farmlands helps keep your mind off the 1-2% incline that we traverse for the full first half of the day in the Yamanashi Prefecture. HIghway No 20, which we literally follow the whole day, rewards us with a dramatic descend around 1pm. Most of the villages that we pass are not particularly pretty. Like the consumers'choice of car colour in Japan, which is more than often white, white, grey, silver or white, the housing is also quite drab: brown and off white and there's a lot of debris cluttering up the yards.

As soon as you are through each township, the countryside is quite magnificent: blankets of green trees cover the volcanic mountain formation and shoot vertically up to touch blue skies. The whole setting is in such a colossal proportion, that the trees, from a distance, look like mere shrubs. Only as you sidle up next to the mountain, do you realise the massiveness of each individual plant itself. The nature in this country is spectacularly immense and equally intense.

Today, we plan to reach Suwako Lake but as soon as it comes into view, it's obvious that this area is so overly populated that we need to cycle a little further a field. Other cyclists have all mentioned camping in the parks in the cities, which is quite plausible, given the nonchalant attitude of the Japanese towards foreigners camping wild in their country. But the city parks are used extensively by joggers, evening strollers, dog walkers, families and sporting groups that you will be permanently on display. Personally, we like to cycle out of the city preferably on a side road and camp on the river bank, often near a bridge. There are so many rivers and streams in Japan that you can take your pick. Our spot tonight near Shiojiri (84km; 993m) is one of those perfect places.

It is certainly a well deserved rest tonight as the 14km climb out of Suwa was a killer, but once again the 8km tumble down into Shiojiri was superb. We shop at another large supermarket near Hirooka station, fill the petrol bottle up which causes a bit of a stir and witness a young boy walking over a pedestrian crossing and then turning around and bowing subserviently low to the car that stopped to allow him to cross. People bowing at you might seem a little strange, but you'll soon find yourself doing it too. In Japan, it's respectful and similar to our nod of the head or wave.

Tunnel Vision
Today is a little overcast, but we have been really lucky with the weather so far, considering the forecast was for rain about now. The sun peaks out every now and again as we follow the Azura River upstream towards Mt Hotahadake. Again impressive countryside. As I look around me, this could be anywhere in France except the vineyards, lavender and wheat fields have been replaced with rice paddies, azaleas and wheat fields. It's definitely farming country.

The last real shopping facilities are at Shinshimashima, where I get my second flat tyre for the day. After here, you are only left with the option of paying through the nose for anything you purchase at Kamikochi Park. They don't have real groceries either, just snacks, pot noodles and few other items like face masks. Why on earth would you go hiking up in the fresh mountain air with a blinking face mask on? Beats me.

One place I would certainly recommend wearing a mask is in tunnels. I hate tunnels, let this be known right now. You feel trapped: they are dangerous, scary, noisy, stinking, claustrophobic, light blinding spaces that cyclists shouldn't have to use, but do because it saves them from thigh burning pain. We go through a marathon of exactly 21 of the forsaken things today. The last one being the king of all tunnels. I thought the general idea was that they were supposed to be flat, but no, this one defies all other definitions and is quite an engineering feat as far as that side of things goes: 1350m and at a 11% gradient. We have to push our bikes through the entire length along a narrow ledge with magnetic reflectors on the road side that make the passage just that bit too small for a panniered bike. It was not a nice half an hour experience, but we made it and as we pedal round the peak and look out across at the Kamikochi mountain range, the trip was worth every aching inch.

Kamikochi (53km; 1175m) is definitely a place to put on your itinerary. It's peaceful, beautifully relaxed when you are not hanging around the gourmet shops selling all sorts of bizarre food products, and you can camp. For the ¥700 per person, you don't get much, just toilet facilities and running water, but that's enough. Unfortunately you have to pay for a Japanese bath and they dictate the time of service. At ¥400 a pop, we heat up water ourselves and do what we've been doing everyday since camping wild. The Sea to Summit kitchen sink has certainly been one of the most invaluable items we've taken along with us on this trip.

Airing your laundry in public
Day two in Kamikochi starts off miserably. The rain had started yesterday evening around 9pm and it doesn't stop until around 12 midday. About 2am, I woke to find my side of the tent swimming in a 5 cm deep puddle of icy cold water. Ali reluctantly gets out and tries his dam building skills to no avail and we end up having to move the tent in the pouring rain, with everything inside it. This is one of those dreaded tasks you wished you'd never embarked on and after the first attempt only succeeds in moving the tent into another pool of water, we are finally high and dryish after our second effort.

We desperately need to do some washing and decide it could quite possibly dry with the wind the way it is. Beautifully though, the sun comes out around 1pm and remains with us for the rest of our stay in the park. Our washing is stretched out between two trees next to the tent and seems to pull more of a crowd that the stunning mountain view across the river. Our clothes have never had so many photographs taken before in their lives.

Ali says the best part about Japan is the birdsong and he's right in that it is almost operatic. There's one particular song that starts off as a series of uplifting chirps that rise to a symphonic crescendo and then the articulated splendor gradually slows in pace and abruptly ends. It goes on for quite a while and the first time Ali heard it, he stopped cycling to listen and then clapped at the end of the performance. It was pretty deserving of the attention, I must say.

Going absolutely wild camping in Japan
Kamikochi to Nagaike (6 cycle days: 379km; 2958m)

Kamikochi to Hagiwara (85 km; 611 m)
Hagiwara to near Tajimi (93 km; 399 m)
near Tajimi to near Kuwana (78 km; 427 m)
near Kuwana to near Komono (27 km; 318 m)
near Komono to near Koka (52 km; 910 m)
near Koka to Nagaike (45 km; 293 m)

We leave after two nights and our next goal is to reach the campsite in Nagaike in between Kyoto and Nara. OUr replacement Schwalbe tyres are waiting to be picked up in Nagoya, but further to that, there's no time limits or definite plans. By now we figure, we'll need to extend the travel insurance by a couple of extra weeks. Japan is proving to be a wonderful adventure, really challenging cycling, stunning nature, enough modern facilities to keep travellers of our means happy and plenty of opportunities to camp wild and have fresh water everyday. What more could you ask for?

The local short tailed, long haired Macaques monkey population is out in force to see us off the next morning. They just lol around enjoying the sunshine as we venture back out of the park, past the bus station and gourmet shops with hoards of Japanese tourists hovering over rice crackers that cost more than a euro each and soba noodles for about the same price as a new release cd: honestly, just how much are you prepared to pay for a pot of noodles? The winding road leading to the tunnel that had been so difficult coming up, is busy with buses transporting tourists to and from the park. As we exit and take the turn off towards the Abo Pass, we find ourselves at a crossroad. In front of us is a toll tunnel and cyclists aren't allowed in due to road works. To our right is the steep road leading to the pass which is surprisingly closed due to recent snowfall.

After a bit of oohing and aahing with the traffic controllers, they come up with a solution for us. Our bikes are thrown on the back of a bright yellow road works truck and we get a comfortable ride through the tunnel and all the way to the side which saves oodles of kilometres and leg power as well. The rest of the trip is relatively easy apart from the intermittent road works with overly bureaurocratic pensioners in charge, the usual truck traffic and the unpredictable cycle paths that just come to a dead end, swap sides of the road without warning, or become so overgrown that you can't pass through.

In love with Hida
Our route takes us along Highway No 158 until Takayama, which is a pleasant little town with old wooden houses and quite a long shopping strip in the centre. Shopping seems to be a favourite pasttime of the Japanese and it appears they take it very seriously: even supermarket shopping. It is fairly obvious, when I venture into these massive establishments after a day's riding, in my steel capped boots and bike shorts, that I'm not entirely dressed for the occassion. Women, more so the older generation, look me up and down in utter disgust as though I'm from an undignified part of outerspace and got coodies to boot. They tend to steer very clear of me in the ailses and one mother even went as far as to draw her young girl closer to her when I walked near them in the miso soup section. The Satoh Merca in Takayama, though was completely different. I had been bowed at twenty times before I had got halfway down the row of packaged seaweed.

We now follow the No 41 which runs along side the magnificent Hida River. She is ever changing: sandy banks become smooth white stone formations. Impenetrable on foot. Smooth, peaceful ponds become turbulent pools that later turn into dangerous torrents. The water is so clear you can see the bottom. Birds are plentiful and butterflies cling to bright coloured wild flowers. At 5.30 pm, we perch ourselves on her grassy banks just near Gero at Hagiwara (85km; 611m).

Getting to our next port of call is an easy run following the Hida the whole way downstream. There's a few tunnels to navigate, but I don't think anything will ever beat our trip to Kamikochi. Much the same village life to be seen as well: lots of rice paddies in amazingly green countryside. The manicured curves of the tea plantations sculpt the lanscape in perfect waves. We take the side route No 64 to Kani-Shi, where we pick up some fresh supplies before following the railway line in the direction of Tajimi (93km; 399m)

Our campground tonight is a little different as we are actually in a town. It takes us half an hour of looking around though before we decide on this spot. There are two other choices, a park on a major intersection; or further downstream on a fairly exposed bank. The third option which we choose is still very close to the main drag but quite a way down beside a small river in an overgrown garden at the back of a couple of businesses. Blue irises, golden daises and green grass are everywhere so it's incredibly picturesque. I convince Ali not to put the tent on the irises so we use stones on the snowflaps of the tent and sleep on the marble surface instead. It is surprisingly comfortable for stone. We are not bothered by anyone and sleep like logs.

Getting the bikes up the steps the next day is a bit of a hard work, but it was a perfect overnight spot. We leave the irises behind, intact, and head for Highway No 248 out of town in the firection of Seto. It's quite a difficult ride today. The road is really narrow and every truck in Japan seems to be on the same route as us. Adding to our maneuverability problems we go up nearly the entire journeys 427m in the first couple of hours. The cycle paths are totally unusable overgrown and thwart with litter. After Seto, we follow the No 363 and as we close in on Nagoya, the road flattens out. We almost fly into the city outskirts to pick up our replacement tyres around lunchtime. Thanks again to Masao from G-style distributors and Bettina from Schwalbe for arranging this for us. The replacements went on the bikes immediately and we are pretty certain our rate of flat tyres will go down dramatically over the next months.

To the bridge over the rivers Kisogawa and Ibigawa
All we really want to do is get out of the city and find somewhere to camp, but not without a stop off at Kato Cycle shop for a few extra necessities. The sprawling metropolis just goes on and on and on and by the time we are on the massive red bridge construction (HIghway No 23) heading towards Kuwana, it's well into the afternoon. We literally keep going the Mie Perfecture, which is an absolute disgrace, rubbish wise, until we find a suitable place to camp. We do, just outside Kuwana (78km; 427m). Travelling in the cities is hard work and not our favourite form of cycling. Tonight, we decide to steer clear of them at all costs.

An overcast morning turns into a streaming wet day and we are climbing our way up to the Suzuka Sky Line, whatever that is: it just sounded good on the map and so we decided on taking Route 477. Besides it takes us away from major towns and into the mountains again. But the weather has other plans and we have no choice but to stop outside of Komono (27km; 318m). Luck is however, on our side because just as the heavens open and the rain gets really bad, we stumble upon a wooden hut. It has open windows and frontage but it is warm and dry and there's a perfect platform for the tent, should we get stuck here. This of course happens as the rain continues for a solid 20 hours and we spend a great afternoon and evening, counting our lucky stars at the perfect overnight accommodation, while the countryside gets a thorough soaking.

Early morning workout
When we venture off the next morning the rain has stopped for just over an hour. It starts almost immediately when we are back in the saddle and doesn't let up for the complete climb to the top of the Suzuka Sky Line. Nothing like a grinding uphill pedal first thing in the morning to get your heart rate pumping. I stop after 2.8 kilometres and Ali informs me that we have risen 230m. That's tough going. I teeter between being hot from the exercise and cold from the sweat and rain. Not a pleasant feeling. It takes us two hours to reach the tunnel at the top, just 6.1 kms from our set off point, but 500m up at an average of 8% all the way. These hills are definitely wicked.

A new set of clothes to replace the sopping wet ones, long pants and raincoat are needed for the downhill plunge into mist and drizzle. It keeps promising to clear up but never really does and we soon realise that the climbing isn't over for the day either. We are stopped by our first car and receive our first gift, in the form of chocolate, from a very enthousiastic young couple. In this sort of weather, chocolate definitely comes in handy and just a few kilometres down the road by a hot coffee vending machine, one block is fevorishly devoured.

At Hino we turn onto the No 307. It's a bit up and down all the way to our stopping point: 10 kms out of Koka (52km; 910m). Yet another perfect patch of ground, near a supposed temple and golf course. Though there's a bit of car activity, we are left to our own devices once again. The birdsong is beautiful again tonight and it looks like the storm has finally blown over. Blue skies turn into night skies, we eat and sleep contently after a challenging journey.

We only have a couple of hours journey today, which will mean we can arrive at the campsite and do all the chores before the afternoon has set in. Well that is the plan. The road is treacherously busy and drives me insane. We pass the Chinese ceramic area, with all their kooky looking animals on display. There's one particular character, the tanuki, that has been replicated enough times, you could perch one on every doorstep in Japan. It sort of looks something like a cross between a raccoon and a badger with tits and a large scrotum. Weird what some people find attractive.

The last physical feature, according to folklore, can be stretched to the size of eight tatami mats and in one fable was used as a parachute and in another as a drum. Taking all this into account, you would aptly expect the tanuki to have mischievous tendencies. And you are right, because he never pays his bills, loves his sake and is forever playing tricks on people with his magical power of transformation.

Apart from this mythical ceramic version, the animal also exists in the wild in Japan. It is an atypical dog species with characteristic black stripes under its eyes. It doesn’t possess any of the fore mentioned physical or supernatural attributes, but he’ll find a way to get into your tent if you are not careful. So, don’t leave any food lying around.

Nagaike (45km; 293m) is easy enough to find and after a couple of stops to ask where the campsite is, we find ourselves in a closed park. The general-chores man though, is kind enough to let us pitch our tent. Apparently the place closes one day a week and that being a Monday, though this is not mentioned in the camping in Japan chart (pdf file 428k), Ali found on internet. Doesn't matter and two days later, we are still here. Although not the perfect camping grounds we've ever been in and incredibly expensive at ¥2100 for what we get, it is great to have running water and more importantly, electricty. Otherwise this update just wouldn't have made it online yet.

After being rained in for a couple of extra days than planned, we finally make the ride into Kyoto. It is not at all relaxing nor pretty cycling through the sprawling grey concrete mass. We open the computer up near Central Station to find that not one unsecured wireless connection exists. Down a side street, a business offers internet for ¥1000 per hour: Now they really have got to be joking somewhat disappointing for the world's leading country in technology. The tourist information on the ninth floor of the apparently beautiful Central Station Building has a better deal at ¥400 per hour. Ali flies through the updating and we glance at our mails before trekking off to the National Museum. There's some interesting scrolls and wooden statues from the Heian and Kamakura periods but the display techniques are old hat, repetitious, with inadequate English translations and Ali is a little disappointed. We fly back to the campsite and prepare for our departure the next day.

It's raining again...
Yep, it's raining again as we awake and we dawdle through the packing up routine. Finally dries up enough for us to hit the road, but doesn't stay that way for long. An hour and a half later, we wind up in a 7-Eleven drinking hot coffee ad eating chocolate chip cakes while sheltering from the rain. Though we meet a lot of friendly people today, the trip into Hashimoto (80km; 489m) is not a particularly pleasant one: apart from the weather, the cycle paths are crap, there is one concrete jungle after the next and the bits in between, that you would expect to be green, are filled with neon clad Pachinko Parlours and unfinished highway dreams. Remarkably we find a patch by the riverside, just outside of town. Peaceful until the local lads decide to use the riverbed as a place to hoon up and down in their four-wheel drives. Doesn't last too long and by 10pm we are about to nod off. Tomorrow, the beginning of June and a ferry journey to Shikoku: the island of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage.

JP bankWhen in Japan, you will have a few options of getting your money out of your bank account. Most banks will only accept Japanese cards, but there is an exception: Japanese Post. And a very good one, because they have offices all over Japan, even in the tiniest of places. But beware: ATM's are not open all day every day... that may sound strange, but it is no fun when you are about to catch a ferry, to find out the ATM doesn't work on Sundays...(!) Usually they open at 9AM and close at 9PM, but the operating hours on Sunday entirely depends on the size of the branch.
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