November, December, January in Japan
albano, Huancayo (Peru), March 2000
There is a little wood and a little convenience store just outside the airport area, so catering and some sleep are assured for the night. The next day is Friday, November 26; my first ride in Japan, on the left side of the road, of course. My first impressions are abundance of shops and merchandise, even in small towns, abundance of unintelligible characters just anywhere and lack of space. Fortunately, the narrow roads are combined with tiny cars and it still works - most of the time.
When I arrive at the centre of Tokyo, I find prices exorbitant, still comparing with Peru. It starts with more then 30 Dollars US for a bed in the youth hostel. The next day, it continues the same way with expensive internet places. So I'm looking for alternatives. My first find is an affordable and easy-going noodle bar: Select your picture on the wall, find the according button on the ticket machine, give the aquired voucher to the kitchen pointing on the type of noodles you want and enjoy with chopsticks. While eating, don't forget to slurp as loud as you can.
The next step back towards budget travelling is a campground on the sea shore in the midst of the vast harbour installations. The allotments are small, just big enough for my tent. Many people stay during the day to enjoy what is probably the last more or less warm Sunday this year. They bring tons of equipment and food with them, and the people from the next plot invite me to their grill party.
Now, that I get a grip on my expenses, another problem starts to give me sorrows: my bike is running on only one fork tube. The other one has broken off. Trying to take remedial measures, I am sent from one shop to another. Fortunately, somebody makes a few phone calls for me and finds help. Day number two of the affair already brings the solution. In the morning, I arrive at the right place. There, they virtually snatch the bike out of my hands and start working on a new fork. And a few hours later, I am back i the streets of Tokyo; but only till the evening, when a phone call leads me into the cosy appartment of a fellow-citizen of mine living and working here. It comes with a fabulous view to the Tokyo Tower standing right in front of the window, and what's more, I may stay here.
I got some more phone numbers from a friend in Switzerland, so these days, there are several meetings accumulating in my calendar. At the same time, a vaccination, as well as a dental checkup are waiting for me. And my passport goes to the chinese embassy for a visa. But even without all this, there is no way to get bored in Tokyo with its almost endless shopping malls. Books, clothes, electronic equipment and more is waiting for buyers, and they come in crowds. And if this is still not enough, there are numerous temples and shrines dotted about the city.
Saturday, December 11. I leave Tokyo towards the west, by bike, of course. I ascend through, again, narrow and yet well-paved roads to have a closer look at majestic Mount Fuji, first wrapped up in a curtain of clouds. The valleys, I am riding in during the following days are quite populated, but I still manage every night to find a convenient spot for my little house. The temperatures are falling gradually, and one morning, I peel out of the tent into a bright, white scenery. The mountains are pierced by lots of tunnels. Even up there, it is still no problem to get food in the dozens of stores along the road. But meal-breaks outsinde are short. For obvious reasons, people try to stay in warm places. Contacts are rare.
I pass north of Nagoya and also north of Lake Biwa until arriving in Kyoto, where I am satisfied with a nocturnal sightseeing tour. The next day, again a Saturday, I appear in Nara with more temples to see. Flocks of deers are hanging about and sticking to the people that feed them. Next stop on the same day: Sakai, south of Osaka, where I find the headquarters of my Shimano bycicle components. And the final stop after a trying ride through Osaka and a challenging uphill: a house in Kobe - another phone number from my Swiss friend.
It's his sister with her family living here. The house comes with a huge guest bed, a heated toilet seat and a whirl-wind of a little doughter, ensuring my getting up in the morning. I stay until Christmas. On the first weekday, I start taking action against a new problem with my bicycle: Another cracked rear rim on this trip. I call at a shop, am sent to the next one, and there, long negotiations start. After many telephone calls and catalogues, however, we find a suitable rim. The next day it is on-site and fitted to the hub.
One evening, I go to the centre of Kobe, where the Christmas light arcades attract thousands of on-lookers. On Friday, I have a look at Osaka and its castle. In the afternoon, a member of the Shimano staff welcomes me in Sakai. He shows me, and only me, around the works. They have even posted a sign at the beginning of the tour: «Welcome Mr. Bernasconi» For more then an hour, I let myself drift along bustling production and assembly lines with robots and hands working on future bicycle parts. It's Christmas Eve today. At home, there is a decorated tree, a handful of guests and a festive dinner waiting for me.
Sunday, December 26. Time for a few more kilometers. I pedal on, along the coast. There are not many cyclists on Japanese roads, at this time of the year. Do you have to be crazy to do it? On Tuesday, I am hanging on the back wheel of a racing bike until late at night. The man riding it is a student on his way back home for New Year - more than 500 kilometers, all in one stretch. Before I pitch my tent and say good by to my partner, we cook spaghetti on the road side.
Bad news before arriving in Hiroshima: Once more a broken screw on the back rack and no way to get the bolt out of the hole. After visiting the atomic bomb memorial site, I find a bike mechanic with a drilling machine fixing the defect. She does not even charge one yen for this service and invites me to a can of coffee on top of it all. More temples and more deers the next day on Miya island; and more cycling in the afternoon. On Friday, the year is running out of days. At night, I go camping as always, mentally prepared for the worst catastrophy ever. But the next morning, the world surrounding me is running like always.
On this day, I change from Japan's main island, Honshu, to suothern Kyushu by the pedestrian tunnel linking the two. The next city, Kitakyushu, should be big enough to allow a refill of my purse even on a holiday, but the few open ATMs all spit back my credit card without providing any money. The next day, in central Fukuoka, the machines show the same bad behaviour. Only late in the evening, at the nearly deserted airport, a lonely money dispenser feels pity for me.
Back in the centre, I hire a computer. When I pay, the shop assistant offers me to sleep in his van in the backyard. In the morning, he drives me to his flat, and I get a shower and lots of food. Three more days till Nagasaki; with more sociable people: An old man buys food for me, a young one invites me for a drink, and in Nagasaki, I can stay at a couple's home for another night. By that time, I know that I will not leave the country from here like planned. The ferry service to China, I have read about, has been suspended. So I ride back to Fukuoka for a boat to South Korea.
The night before arriving in the city, I catch an idyllic camping spot in the midst of low pine trees, close to the beach. Back in Fukuoka, I am again taken up by the same host. The man is living in three small rooms together with his business partner. They have just one mattress, yet they find some space to accomodate me for three nights until my ferry leaves. On Monday, January 10, I board the ship after witnessing a stage-worthy dispute between two women in the waiting hall. My sleeping compartment on the vessel is already full of Koreans and luggage. They don't like the idea of letting in one more person.
© 3-28-2000 albano & team