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Asia LP: Track 2 (Japan)

Boats and Couches

Yep, there we were on the last day of October, admittedly kind of expecting an upgrade after our previous boating experience in Korea (read about it HERE) and we were right! There were to be upgrades, just sadly not for us. Alexandria and Miguel, the Spaniards we'd met in line at the Busan Port had scored a private cabin no extra charge. We faced the next ten hours together with twenty other plebs in the group floor sleeping rooms. This was of course not a problem at all, as we are more than capable of sharing a bit of space, and thankfully the hours of the night passed quickly.

There she was, the beautiful seaside Fukuoka greeted us warmly and, warmer still were the coffees we bought from the heated section of the fridge in our first convenience store. Strange but true, 'we could get used to this kind of convenience!' we thought together. Breakfast was cooked in a park full of crazies and homeless: so we fitted right in. As it was early morning, we watched superbly uniformed boys and girls riding Dutch bikes to schools, their bags slung over their shoulders and their handlebar baskets full of books.

The day was mostly people-watching the hours away, noting the surprising amount of infrastructure for the blind throughout the city streets – and then we sat and saw the blind people using it! Foot-watching is a more apt way to describe what we did, hunched over on the stoop of 7Eleven we watched super 'kawaii' (cute) chicks in 'sugoi' (incredible) kicks (shoes) shaloop their way by. We heard great gaggles of girls clip-clop past: their heels towering but their heights still rather limited. Stranger still we watched men, women and children join the teenagers in their strange fashion: wearing shoes four sizes too big!

After almost missing our rendezvous with our couchsurfing host, we got to know some information about teaching English in Japan. The JET program employs native English speakers to be teaching assistants and although this is an excellent idea in principle, in practise it sometimes seems to be little more than a novelty: the westerner in the corner is the elephant in the room – Japanese culture doesn't really want any other influence other than its own.

That first night we joined Ryan for a JET program horror movie night in the ongoing celebration of Halloween. We and some other westerners enjoyed a very strange, and creepy Japanese flick called Hausu. At Olivia's house there was home made food, gyoza, red wind and just a little craziness imbibed that night.

We stayed three nights with Ryan and had a rather quiet, relaxing time. We did visit the red light district of Fukuoka and ate some scrumptious authentic Indian food. And then it was unfortunately time to go, only unfortunate because it was raining in sheets and buckets and other household items.

Wild camping in parks has many perks

After it rained all day on us, darkness crept in and brought some fair weather and a breath of dry relief. We pedalled out towards an island and disturbed a whole family of wild boars in a field! The Mumma Pig was bounding through the rice fields, masquerading as a gleeful dog – ears flapping, until we got close enough to watch her loopy tail and pointy ears retreating with seven piglets in tow. All that night in our side-of-the-road camp spot we heard them rustling, snorting and rooting around.

Our days riding in most countries have been dappled with large patches of kindness, Japan wasn't about to be a shady exception. We paused at a conventience store (let's face it, we were happy to make them our home) where a woman named Yoshiko approached us and we conversed in English before she dashed away momentarily to fetch us onigiri (compressed rice triangles filled with seaweed). As is typical and magical, we were happened upon by another English speaking person (for a very small town in Japan it is a rarity to have two in one spot!) a junior high English teacher who had lived in Australia, of course!

That night we camped in a childrens' playground (well, a small park with a slide in it) and the next morning accidentally met Lee, a Japanese man who brought us fruit from his home, who's friends bought us coffee, and who's wife made us coffee and walnut bread after he invited us into his home. What a legend, it made our day.

Cycling further into the mountainous region of Honshu, we arrived at thd Akiyoshido caves but were disappointed to find we only had half an hour to visit them, so being the resourceful Alleykats we are, we instead camped next to museum and visited the limestone caves the next morning.

Kat busted something in her sit bones and we swapped seats which provided some sweet relief, despite looking a bit odd. Our target of the small historical hown Hagi was reached by sun down and after discovering the 4000 yen ($40) per person per night pricetag at the hostel, of course slept in the park next to the ocean for the sum total of zero yen.

Partial nudity and rice cakes

The mountains surrounding us held a dark secret: huge section of the countryside had been devastated by the heaviest rains in 100 years (freak flash flood) – the river ran as a writhing demon snake, tearing into the hills and valleys, causing damage to nature and structure alike, leaving only destruction in its wake.

The small town of Tsuwano sat mostly undisturbed at the end of the path, our official couchsurfing host Saki was absent but our second host Mitsuya luckily lived in the same vast house along with, yep you guessed it, our third host Ken. Soon we were integrated into the huge house of boys and stayed four nights instead of one…this was to become a theme in Japan! We cooked dinner for the lads, their friends Kanta and Wataru and the very gorgeous and talented Noriko (the only other girl in the house at the time!) a couple of nights in a row and then the wonderous, worldly Saki returned home and our stay continued to continue!

Our last full day was decorated by the event of a matsuri (festival) to celebrate the new rice harvest, and was full of townsfolk giving generously. We ate red-bean-paste pancakes, drank hot red-bean soup with moji (chewy rice cakes) and followed an incredible group of mostly-naked men jubilating around a platform in a demonstration that has to be seen (and heard!) to be believed. The photos don't do it justice, watch our movie about Japan HERE to get the full picture!

We ate the little rice cakes we collected from the matsuri festivities – roasted in the microwave and toaster oven (in the typically Japanese absence of a proper convection oven). Eaten saltily with a small dousing of soya sauce or sweetly with a dusting of kinkili (ground beans) and powdered sugar they are a real treat.

The reason Saki and the crew were living together is a very worthy one: they're employed to promote tourism in the region, supporting the declining population of young people in villages and towns. They're helping Japan deal with its ageing population problem.

After days and days of being well looked after by Saki and her clever gang of tourism officers we rambled along smooth and sweet roads towards the coast. Alee grabbed a handful of brake suddenly and shouted 'monkey!', this isn't hugely abnormal behaviour, but soon all – a rather abnormal sight – was revealed by the simple act of looking up: yep, there were moneys alright, gorging themselves on the delicious persimmons blooming richly on branches clad to the cliffs at our side. After filming their apish antics for a while the city of Ikawani thrust itself upon us.

Darkness arrives early in winter and yet again we were caught out without a proper park to park in, cycling up into some hills proved to be a fruitless exercise and so like true homeless travellers, we absconded in the darkness at a sport complex and stayed long after the soccer players went home. In the morning our clever, dark hiding spot was revealed as starkly obvious; we'd camped slap bang next to the car park, but no matter, we weren't deterred from dithering over our breakfast in the slightest.

Lady Luck and some confused (alley)cats

Luckily, all this wild camping had Lady Luck feeling sorry for us – we'd successfully hooked up a couchsurf for a night in Hiroshima. Mari, who had generously accepted us smelly bike riders, let us know that there was a slight change of plans: we'd be staying in a hotel instead of her home. We read her message as though her family we staying altogether in a big hotel room (something about a sick grandmother) – heck, so long as they were happy to have us, we didn't mind where we stayed!

We rolled up to the biblically big Sheraton Hotel and were immediately told off for leaning TanNayNay's bulk on the glossy marble wall out the front. Upon attempting to check in, we realised we didn't have Mari's last name and so attempted to describe her family and that they might possibly be staying there with a grandma… we were lost!

We stopped by 7Eleven to use the internet and soon got Mari's last name – she was emailing us from work and we could only get access to the internet using the free wifi service at aforementioned convenience stores – where was Lady Luck when we needed her?!

Keeping up? We weren't at all sure what the deal was yet but kept on keeping on. We wandered in and up to the concierge, thoroughly out of place in dirty clothes and bike sandals, and were taken to our room. Here we thought we'd find Mari's family but instead, a massive king-sized bed suite opened grandly in front of our quietly bulging eyes. What was going on?!

We realised that there was some misunderstandings somewhere along the way but weren't at all sure where. Here we were in our own private room, still confused as to where Mari's family were and whether we were going to have to pay the $500 price for the privelaged of living the high life in this hotel.

After two hours of not touching anything, not unpacking, not going to the toilet, we ascertained that the very lovely and outrageously generous Mari had in fact paid for our night in the Sheraton and that her family were at home twenty kilometres away taking care of Mari's sick grandma – who wasn't keen to have two clumping foreigners cramping her recovery space (fair enough!).

Mari finished work at 9pm and took us out for second dinner at a varied traditional restaurant. We quickly fell in love with Mari and forgot that she'd just bought us an entire hotel room – instead she was just a normal (super special) Japanese girl who was our latest and greatest new friend. Staying out all together until 2am meant missing out on most of our time in the expensive hotel room – worth it!

The next night was again spent as a threesome and Mari introduced us to our very first okimomiyaki – a kind of Japanese vegetable pancake set on noodles and cooked on a huge hot plate in front of the customer, delicious! Alleykat, as a true gentlecat must, walked Mari to her tramstop but instead of heading back over to 'richoshima' and to a night of super luxury, we simply parked out tent beside the Ota River, and slept in the cold – what a couple of contrasting nights.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

Our visit to The Children's Peace Museum was moving and educational. Kat had read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes in grade five, weeping thoroughout, and was amazed at the reality of the place: Sadako really is the face of the story, the sadness, and the rejuvenation of Hiroshima. We learned more about the evil surrounding the dropping of the atom bomb and understood more about the importance of world peace than we've done since Iran.

The next day as we were riding out of the city, a woman who'd seen us riding through the streets of Hiroshima City was so surprised to see us again that she bought us lunch at the supermarket. Our day was frustratingly marred by city riding: the roads were narrow and the traffic heavy, we'd expect to see the countryside open up at every bend but we remained closed in by houses, shops and road traffic.

By evening there hadn't been a convenient little pozzie to pop ourselves so we looked out across the water. An enormous bridge lead to a dwarf of an island; the bridge was almost longer than the landmass was wide! Following the lights we circumnavigated this tiny territory and ended up at the end of a pier and despite only being just wide enough for us to set up the tent, there we balanced ourselves and slept soundly with the salty tide lapping a metre below us.

Park camping and not-showering comrades

The leaves were really beginning to turn, glancing at us over their big bushy shoulders, blushing and smouldering with autumnal colours; riding the coast was suddenly made far more enchanting. Our goal was to ride across to the island of Shikoku, using the famous six bridges for six islands network (much like seven brides for seven brothers but with a bit less singing and dancing). After an overnight stay on the first of the set of small isles, (next to some docks again and where we were discovered in the early morning and given fruit, coffee and onigiri for our trouble of sleeping outside in the cold!) we set off.

The first bridge lept out at us, massively dominating the skyline – how on earth would we reach such a monster? It was sitting easily a hundred metres in the air – were we going to have to carry TanNayNay up?

No, no, of course we didn't: a gently ascending path looped ringlets around the mountainside leading up to the bridge's wide mouth. Instead of riding ontop of the tarmac with the cars and trucks, an entirely separate path was hanging just below, ferrying us across the flying-fish-filled waters. This was the theme throughout the next 70 kilometres: we bike riders were given preference, huge sections of road or path dedicated entirely to us!

Once in Imabari we set ourselves up in a city Central Park, as was now common behaviour for Alleykat. Not long after we'd eaten and cleaned up (thank you super clean bathrooms) we realised we were in the crazy park – yep, there were a number of crazy cat men, feeding the cats with what should definitely have been their own dinner. There was a gang of dudes at 2am whizzing around a remote control car, Tokyo Drifting past our tent for a good half an hour. But most indicatively, we woke to find the men's bathroom in complete revolting disarray: some poor sod (or sods) had not enjoyed himself – the walls were smeared and splattered and let's just say Alee used the girls toilets after such an “interesting” morning find.

Shikoku was quite lovely, lots of little rolling hills and roads to follow up and down them, however there were two drawbacks: firstly, a plague of industry had spread on the shoreline for a good 50 kilometres, marring some of the island's beauty – in fact as we rolled into Shikocucho, we couldn't see the city for the smog.

The second negative won't seem particularly dramatic, but, for those of us relying on the internet, it was very nearly a disaster! There were zero 7Elevens on the island (outside Takamatsu). This meant that our couchsurfing hopes for the few hundred kilometre journey were dashed – we couldn't apply to any hosts, nor see if any of the hosts we'd applied to stay with previously had answered us.

Aside from these small blips on the radar, it was good fun riding along the island's coast. We were stopped by a woman on a scooter who insisted in good English that we take her lunch, telling us that she'd have something else to eat with her friends later. The walnut fruit rye sourdough went down a treat along with the traditional persimmon and red bean moji. That evening we discovered an excellent supermarket and dessert before camping on the beach nestled in some pine trees.

Somehow we'd managed to apply for a couchsurfing host in Takematsu (thanks to Alee's persistence: when pressed, there are always ways of finding the internet – even if it involves riding around in circles for hours) and that evening we met Saad at the train station with his friend Kelsey. Saad is part of the JET program and luckily for us is totally utterly gorgeous and wonderful. We stayed four nights after planning just the one (yes, Japan definitely had a pattern!).

We ate Jamaican food, Japanese food and Alleykat food, witnessed a stundents-in-training tea ceremony, helped reinforce Saad's windows against the cold with bubble wrap, had fun in the city checking out fixie hipster niche shops and Kat got her hair cut short by Takeshi, and there met the lovely Kristen (a kindergarten teacher also from the US).

Kelsey and Alleykat shared a short history of not washing for sometimes weeks at a time: Kelsey had just finished a multi-year stint working with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia. She shared some incredible stories with us and blew our socks off with the prospect of helping the world in such a far-from-home setting. Saad was the cleanest of the four, but still had a wealth of amazement to share with us partially in the form of photos from his cousin's technicolor wedding in Pakistan (his family hails from there) and, you know, living in Japan!

First time Thanksgiving

It was time to head off, backtracking along the island this time to have our first Thanksgiving with another ex-pat English teacher, Katie. As it turned out, as it so often does in this small world of ours, Saad would also be coming to Katie's place for Thanksgiving!

We arrived in the afternoon and were greeted by Katie's generous absence: she was at work but she'd still managed to lay out six different drink choices for us and have an entire room dedicated to our stay. She arrived home late with her also-teaching-in-the-same-program friend, Olivia (who's twin sister just happens to be one of Katie's best friends back home…) and then the preparations began.

By 2:37AM, multiple dishes had been cooked and baked and prepared with tender loving care and just a sprinkling of madness than only early morning kitchen time can lend. We rolled ourselves into bed after having talked the night away, feeling like we'd already known each other a lifetime. The Thanksgiving celebration wasn't until the next afternoon and so the morning was dedicated to cleaning and moving around furniture and making sure people knew how to navigate their way to Olivia's second-storey apartment. The festivities were raucous only in noise level and happiness – we mingled for a few hours before everyone paused to gather and say what they were thankful for (a rather excellent tradition). There were many present who, like us Aussie Alleykats, had never celebrated the very Ameican tradition of Thanksgiving, but that certainly didn't detract from the evening.

Over the next few days, again having stayed on-theme and remained in Katie's warm hospitality far longer than proposed, we enjoyed the company of new friends over Mexican food, walked up a mountain to a beautiful temple in the rain and generally enjoyed ourselves in the presence of these two gorgeous girls.

Warm Polish hospitality in the cold Japanese countryside

To escape Shikoku, we caught a ferry across to Shodoshima Island and camped on yet another pier and just after setting up the tent, we were almost blown away but the gusty costal winds. After circumnavigating this beautiful mountainous little island, Himeji was our next stop to sleep right next to a bridge carrying the very sexy, extraordinarily speedy Shinkansen train past us all night (bliss for Kat!).

The roads into Kobe were rather treacherous; not dangerous, but definitely not designed with long-distance bike trips in mind. Not even one hundred kilometres saw us dismounting and carrying, hauling or pushing TanNayNay up and around and over a series of mammoth bridges – steps are our enemy! Although we rewarded ourselves with a comfortable sleep in an enormous park and mint choc-chip ice creams later than evening, we'd still rather do without the hundreds and hundreds of steps.

The temperatures over night were brisk, we donned most of our clothing inside our zip-together sleeping bag every evening. Getting started was a bit of a task unless the sun was shining supremely strongly.

However, suffering in a tent in the cold was soon to become a thing of the past. We once again dragged ourselves through the complicated and confusing streets of Osaka (it took us more than five hours to get from one side to the other!) and we popped out of the spaghetti in Izumi-chuo. The station master didn't like us having the bike inside, however it wasn't a problem for too long as we were soon met by Jakub (known as Kuba), a kind-as-they-come Polish exchange student who, despite having extremely limited space, shared it with us.

That evening we had yummy okimomiaki with Kuba's also Polish, also exchange student friend Klaudia and enjoyed the mix it yourself approach to cooking – so yummy! We were soon due up in Tokyo but not before we'd slept a couple of times in the approximately sixteen centimetres of available floor space and thoroughly enjoyed Kuba's laid-back friendship.

As it happens, Kat's cousin Ben lives in Osaka with his Japanese wife Chie and their new baby son Sena. After sharing some cousinly love and a delicious pizza dinner, Ben and Chie helped (rather, did all the work) to get us a bus ticket to Tokyo for the next day. The bus was a spacious double decker and it took us ten hours to travel the six-hundred kilometres between the two massive cities.

Through some bike-tourer good luck we'd managed to get ourselves a hook up with the Tokyo-dwelling best friend of Totally Tandem's Emma and Brendon. Despite not having met either of the bike-hauling-pair, we arrived late at their friend Kirsten's place and awesomeness ensued. Kirsten was not only an incredible and generous host and British School maths teacher extraordinaire, but a totally easy-going, awesomely-accented (South African – you know what I'm saying) vastly-interesting and YouTube-all-knowing babe: we were great friends in minutes.

Shibuya Street Dreams

Early one December morning two more Aussies alighted onto Japanese soil: the magical Paul van der Ploeg and his fashionista girlfriend Juliette! We'd been lucky enough to have a projected path crossing in the months leading up to their snow holiday (thanks mostly to Juliette's university-course-based fascination with Shibuya's fashion – check it out HERE) and *shazzam* Alleykat, Mr World Champion PVDP and Booth Life were soon loved-up in Tokyo's super suburbs Shibuya and Harajuku – wandering, shopping, and eating as a foursome.

Sloshy Mexican shenanigans on the first evening saw us loose and lining up with the masses at Eggs and Things – a common passtime for the über chic Tokyoians, and our five days of adventures went from there. We climbed (elevatored) a tower in Shinjuku and watched the sunset over the city, we took adventage of Kirsten's amazeballs kitchen and cooked dinner for us all, we visited the British School to give an awesome foursome inspiration-packed talk, we went out for another set of okimomiyaki, enjoyed the street life and the late night crepes and finally after five wonderul relaxing nights in Kirsten's paradise apartment, Alleykat hauled our junk out of her place and into Paul and Juliette's Air B'n'B place.

Cat cafes and karaoke craziness

After an awesome coffee at Lattest, Kat and Juliette got pussied up to the eyeballs at that quindecennially Japanese experience: a Cat Cafe. That evening was to be a massive night out: we began at a sayonara shindig with Kirsten's British School crew and extended the boozy reach of the evening's events to Karaoke. For those of you who haven't been before (like Alleykat, the total noobs) do it and be prepared for the time you purchase to never be enough – there's always more singing to be done! We six (including Carmel and Kirsten as seasoned singers) smashed the tunes and the tab: that's right, part of the deal in Japan is the expensive room comes complete with free all-you-can-drink drinks.

As a direct result there was so much awesomeness and bad singing, and new freindships – we met Japanese/Korean dudes and decided to get a expensive taxi altogether to the centre of the dubious dance scene: a club called Womb.

At 1:30AM, the $40-a-head club was totally dead, so instead we went wandering. Soon we'd met Mike and Christian (a couple of young and later heroic navy dudes) and bumped into whole host of drunk Japanese youths. From then until 5:00AM or later we wisely decided to go clubbing at their apartment instead of being stuck inside ready-to-be-born-as-dancers. Way too sozzled, pickled by the end I'm sure, but 'twas a genuinely amazing night out. We got safely home at 5:30AM thanks entirely to the stone-cold-sober Navy seals (who had warm hearts), and fell heavily into bed…only having to drag our sorry arses out and into the world to catch a bus back to Osaka!

With great effort, we rolled ourselves up with our panniers and belongings barely intact and ambled our way quickly to the train station. If we'd woken five minutes later we wouldn't have made it to the bus station! Luck was on our side and so, there we were, stuck in a bus pausing only to puke in the bathrooms while the other passengers ate, drank and were merry.

Paul and Juliette were set to arrive in Osaka some time that day – we felt so lucky to have them there with us again. We wandered around central Osaka for a while after some local Japanese fare, our four faces lit by billboards alive with neon colour, our eardrums beaten from every side by the thrum of voices, music and sheer existence in Japan. We sneakily snuck past the unmanned hotel reception at Paul and Juliet's hotel, and slept cosily in one of their two single beds (thanks guys!).

Our last day together with two of our favourite people in the world – we ate pancakes for breakfast (digesting relief as their fluffy goodness effectively combatted the very last of our epic multi-day hangover), we drank organic coffee, we walked until the soles of our feet were calloused and shopped until (some of) our cards could shop no more. We parted ways with a four-way hug and two separate train rides. Alleykat headed back into the burbs and back to our space-limited but hospitality-rich host, Polish Kuba and ate dinner at a small cafe and talked away the hours.

Fly Away Home

We needed to fly, fly away home, to a new home: The Philippines. We travelled with an enormous bike box folded up and tucked under and wobbily tabled over Kat's personage for 20 kilometres to reach the last train stop before the airport. Unfortunately the airport is five kilometres off the mainland and thus can only be approached via a bridge. That bridge has a list (of rules) and bikes aren't on the list, so after dismantling TanNayNay and reshuffling our stuff for flight mode in the train station, we scuffed the bike box and lugged the unfriendly panniers one station along to the airport.

After lining up for what seemed like dayss, and despite being two and a half hours early for our flight, we reached the front only to discover we needed either a Philippino visa or an ongoing plane ticket to board the now boarding flight. Now, you're well aware dear reader, that Alleykat aren't planners, ok, Alee is a planner, but we don't make plans and we certainly don't book flights out of countries we haven't even reached yet!

Hastily (with 30 minutes to take off!) we booked some tickets to Cambodia and made it through customs and immigration in, we kid you not, three minutes. Now all that remained to do was fly, fly away!

Don't forget to catch our film on Japan!

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More of our Asia LP

⇒ Track 1: South Korea

⇒ Track 2: Japan

⇒ Track 3: The Philippines

⇒ Track 4: Cambodia

⇒ Track 5: Vietnam

⇒ Track 6: Laos

⇒ Track 7: Thailand

⇒ Track 8: Malaysia and Singapore

⇒ Check out our Central Asian series HERE

⇒ Try out our European series HERE

 

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