“The rain is pounding on my head as I sink into the steaming hot water of Hirayu-Onsen. My muscles relax immediately, grateful for the relief after a tough 1100m ascent from Takayama in the valley below. I could not be happier, and I know Katie must be feeling the same in the women’s bath; she wasn’t lagging on the climb.”
To be honest, for a few minutes it smells faintly like someone has let one go, but that’s just the sulphurous odour of the volcanic water and I soon get used to it. Seems we’ve stumbled across the best onsen yet, but it’s absolutely scorching hot so I have to keep taking a cold shower.”
….cycling japan, what a journey. Huge mountain passes, flat rice plains, hot springs at the end of a tough day, megacities baking in the summer sun, torrential rains that last for days and unbelievably welcoming people…the list goes on. We’ve just spent the last 2 months traversing the land of the rising sun from Fukuoka in the south, to the most northerly point on the island of Hokkaido.
We had little to go on when starting out from Fukuoka, a bit of internet research gave us a rough route but we were quite unprepared for the reality of Japan’s geography (almost as big a barrier as the language!). Huge cities engulf almost all the flat land in Japan, which we learnt the hard way by cycling for 3 days along the coast roads. Massive trucks belching out black diesel fumes gave us both headaches and a creeping feeling that maybe we had made a big mistake coming here. Where were the lush valleys and beautiful sunsets from our romantic western perception of Japan?
Drastic action was needed, so we scrapped the coastal route and cut inland. All of a sudden there was virtually no traffic, and the lush green valleys and rice paddies were there in abundance. So were the hills, and lots of them. But hills are what cycling is all about, although Katie doesn’t whole heartedly agree with that!
We spent the next few weeks slowly meandering our way across the island of Honshu towards Kyoto, camping in parks, bus shelters or official campsites if we were lucky…600m climbs for breakfast, lunch and dinner quickly got us into shape. Thankfully the abundance of hot springs and the Japanese culture of public bathing meant we were never far away from a good scrub down after a long day cycling in 35 degree heat and sauna levels of humidity.
As we traversed Honshu we were overwhelmed by the Japanese hospitality and generosity. It started as people buying us drinks and snacks as presents at roadside stops. The first time this happened we were a bit taken aback and not sure how to respond but it transpired that this is heavily engrained in their society. Along the way we were very lucky to meet some really special people who wanted to share their homes and help us along the way. Many times we were invited into Japanese homes for drinks, meals and a bed for the night and they would never let you leave empty handed. Bottles of saké, cakes, and bike tools were squeezed into panniers despite our best intentions to travel light.We learnt pretty quickly that there is no use in protesting. The generosity and warmth shown have left a lasting impression on us.
A two week loop of Hokkaido, the island of legendary powder snow in winter, took us to the northernmost point in Japan. We timed the weather just right and Hokkaido was a dream to cycle. Vast farming plains leading to the central peaks of Daisetsuzan National Park give Hokkaido an almost European, Alpine feel. The western style coffee shops dotted around made us feel right at home!
Long, wide country roads, minimal traffic and great campsites combined with amazing food made Hokkaido the cycling highlight of Japan. After two months on the road we even met some fellow cycle tourists!
Finishing our Japanese cycling efforts in Sapporo, we took a flight to Tokyo for a spot of sightseeing before the next section of the tour begins. We’ve decided to reverse our route through Asia to try outwit the weather (fingers crossed). So by the time you read this we’ll be somewhere in Indonesia, heading north!
See our blog at www.rolling-around.com for more stories about Japan and our current whereabouts!