Nagasaki

We started our first full day in Nagasaki with a tour of some local shrines provided by a volunteer guide. Tokomo explained a bit about the Shinto shrines and customs. There were several weddings happening in the main shrine, the couples wearing traditional Dress. We then went to the hyper centre of the atomic bomb blast with a young Japanese American who was also on the tour. We visited the Peace Park that contained many memorial statues, carvings & fountains. We then continued on the Atomic Bomb Museum via the marker at the epicentre of the explosion. The museum was very interesting and relayed the many sad and distressing stories of the 175,000 who died and those who survived that horrific day. There were many examples of the impact the explosion and the extreme heat it generated had on the population and buildings for kilometres around. There was also a lot of information telling the story about the lead up to this event. You could read between the lines that this second bomb was nothing more than an experiment and a demonstration to the Russians justifying the $2 billion the US spent on developing this tragic weapon. There was also a great deal of emphasis on peace and nuclear disarmament. We then spent some time in the hall of rememberance, where photographs of the 175,000 people are stored. It was a beautiful and peaceful room with 12 light pillars. Funnily we were the only people in this space! At dusk we went to the upper floor of the remembrance hall where the pillars come up through a shallow pool, that has tiny lights representing each person who died. We then had a nice dinner in a Yakatori restaurant, small skewers of things like chicken livers, gizzards, bacon & tomato grilled over coals with a nice glass of sake.

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A moment from Japan 2nd Dec 2014

It was cold and blustery when we left our nice hotel and headed south of Kagoshima to find a Shochu distillery (10km). A nice young lady provided us with a short tour explaining that Shochu was part sake and part sweet potato wine, that is then distilled and aged. After a few tastes we took a road to the nth east climbed the small range and found some lovely small roads through the forest and down the other side. We noticed a small trail that was a short walk leading to a lovely shrine hidden in a cave. We rested in the sunshine at the entrance to the cave that looked out over the forest where lots of birds chirped away.
Not long after leaving the shrine we were pedalling through a small village and a Japanese man called out to us “where are you from”. We stopped and chatted and soon Yasushi invited us to view his old Japanese traditional house. We followed his car about 1km back down the road to a nice looking traditional wooden house with a big garden beside a stream. We were introduced to Pieded his wife who was originally from Spain. They had purchased and were renovating this old house as a second residence away from Kagoshima, their main home. The house was 87 years old and they were returning it to its original glory, with traditional fire hearths and sliding screens. After chatting for a while they asked if we would like to spend the night with them at their house in Kagoshima. It seemed a little weird going back to where we had just ridden from, but they were very friendly interesting people, who spoke English. We were soon sitting around the fire in their lovely Kagoshima house, and being introduced to their delightful daughters. Yasushi showed us some great old photographs of his early Satsuma samurai ancestors and some heirlooms such as old room screens with seasonal pictures painted by very famous artist and much more. His great grandfather was a very high ranking Samaria prior to the war. We shared a lovely meal around the fire and talked about many things Japanese, Australian and the rest of the world. We learnt a lot about Japan, it’s people and politics. We slept very comfortable in a nice soft warm bed out of the rain. After a very relaxing morning and looking around Pieded’s Spanish restaurant, Yasushi delivered us back to his 2nd house and our bikes. We were soon on our way again and managed about 70km to camp in a shelter near a sports field at Akune.

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A moment from Japan 30 November 2014

On 30 November 2014 at 8:43 pm…

“On 29 November 2014 at 9:22 am… “It was lucky we slept in our tent under the shelter at Furuecho as the wind blew and it rained heavily in the night. Traffic noise got us going earlier than usual. We cruised for about 20km until we crossed what is a recent lava bridge to Sakurajima the site of a very active volcano. Mt Sukurajima was an Island but during an eruption in 1914 the lava flows joined it to the mainland. The road was built over the lava flow around the base of the mountain. Twisted rocky lumps and ridges rose from the ground, and fine black basalt sand covered everything. We were starving hungry when we arrived at the ferry, so had another convenience store lunch. It was a short and enjoyable ferry ride to kagoshima. A local cyclist who had just completed a circuit of the island (90km) gave us a present of local cake. People are very friendly and generous in this part of Japan. Kagoshima is a colourful, modern happy looking city. It was heavily bombed during the war, which may explain the wide streets and modern landscape. We were to early to check into our accommodation so we tried out one of the Tonkotsu Ramen in one of the famous restaurants, it was very good. We were joined by two young Japanese laidies, one who had grown up in Wales. Tonkotsu is pork that is cooked to a very soft texture, ramen is a noodle soup. In this case it is delicious pork stock, with excellent noodles, pork, fried garlic with chives and hard boiled egg. We then checked into our business hotel which is rather up-market for us, and marvelled at the soft bed and great bathroom accessories including a nice bath. After treating ourselves to a bath and cleaning our clothes We walked the central shopping district that on a Saturday night was teaming with people mostly young people out for the night. We spent some time talking about Australia with a funny group of Japanese in a standing bar, before having dinner in a Korean place, that served pretty standard Japanese food. We slept well in our soft fluffy bed.

The Good, the Bad and the Curious.

Good: clean toilets everywhere – really clean! Often with heated seats. Some have so many buttons you need a manual to work them out (a different button to wash different parts of the nether region).

Curious: the “onomatapeac sound device button”. Possibly to cover the sounds of you going…

Love…landscapes of exquisite beauty; delicate, understated as opposed to grand, beauty in the detail and the balance.

Hate: the difficulty of getting a view or photo (especially in Honshu) without a factory, overpass, electricity pylon or monstrous concrete hotel (often pink) in the way. A highly industrialised country.

Hate: a national addiction to huge amounts of plastic wrapping. Triple wrapped if possible.

Curious: Why do Japanese people always make the peace sign when their photos are taken?

Love: the strength of their culture and belief in their language and traditions. Even young people spend holidays visiting temples and shrines and learning about their culture.

Curious: Given Japan’s strong economic ties with the western world and their desire for international tourism why is so little English spoken and so little information available in English? Very different to China in this regard.

Funny: a lot of people think that even if we can’t speak the language we must be able to understand written Japanese so write characters in the air to communicate with us. Presumably because Chinese tourists can read kanji?

Love: the lack of litter. Curious: there are virtually no public rubbish bins anywhere we in Japan. Presumably there is an ethos that one is responsible for ones own rubbish. But frustrating for cyclists trying desperately to get rid of all that plastic packaging!

Love the food. Mostly cheap, healthy, very tasty. Fruit out of season however can be extraordinarily expensive ($21 for a rock melon?).

Hate: Japanese tourist industry. Megaphone-led bus groups; huge concrete hotels in various stages of decay (built when the economy was stronger), one that had even been taken over by wild horses & multi-story car parks in front of beautiful places you came to see.

Love the courteous drivers who believe that pedestrians and cyclists have right of way!!! Also love the extensive bike paths in a lot of regions.

Curious: traffic marshals. Wages must be low here because lots of workers don’t seem to do much that you would call productive! Our favourites are the traffic marshals who guide traffic past roadworks, in and out of car parks or hotels, or any other potential congestion point. Quite ineffective despite their numbers, their attitude is either one of cheerful casualness, or of high importance, giving the job all the pomp, circumstance and baton twirling that they feel their position deserves. In any case they provide lots of opportunities to say hello to people as we trundle past.

Curious: Manga. We went to the excellent Manga Museum in Tokyo to try and understand the national obsession with these comic books and videos. Despite a really interesting afternoon we are no closer to getting it. Is it that the written language is so difficult and the education standard fairly poor so that people need the clarity and conciseness of this medium?

Curious: the bells and whistles of village life. Almost every village we stay in has a loudspeaker system that is activated at certain times of day to remind people to go to work or come home, or to make community announcements. The first is usually at 6.00am (well before first light at this time of year) and might be a tune (jingle bells or Rudolph…), then maybe ringing bells at 8.00 with an announcement; and then again at 5.00pm, 6 and 7 or 8 o’clock. In addition sometimes cars with megaphones drive around each street with recorded messages. Probably very useful in the event of a disaster but kinda weird…IMG_1200.JPGIMG_1198-0.JPG

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MOUNTAINS – are Japan

MOUNTAINS
Laurie and I travel not for relaxation but to feed the soul. And there is no better food for the soul than in the mountains. The Japanese poet Akanuma Chihiro talks of the ‘solemn loneliness’ of a mountain experience. Indeed Japanese spirituality has its roots in a profound awe of the mountains and many of its most important temples, such as those at Nikko, were built in the mountains.

For us it was an immense pleasure to leave behind the crowded valleys and plains and seek space and peace up high.

Camping in a forest clearing on a high pass we were visited by a doe, just visible in the moonlight and quite unfazed by our presence. In the morning, while cracking ice off our tent at minus 3.6 degrees we were visited by her mate, a stag with huge anglers. Later that morning after a glorious, numbing 30k downhill ride through brilliant autumn colours we breakfasted on freshly grilled corn on the cob and rice flour patties at a roadside stall, where local farmers were selling their produce.

Several times, by choosing to take the high road rather than the quickest route we have found ourselves almost alone on leaf covered tracks, seeing the occasional wild boar or group of monkeys. The roads are steep but you know you are alive when your clothes, soaked with sweat from the uphill climb, freeze as you head down despite the three extra layers you’ve put on – and warm up again as you go up the other side.

In the mountains Japanese historically made a special effort to reflect the beauty in their built environment. Exquisite tiny shrines are tucked into roadside clearings or can be seen abandoned in the undergrowth. Once we came across a fairytale complex of small thatched buildings beside a small temple, which turned out to be a tiny outdoor onsen (a bathing pool sourced from natural hot springs), and a serene tatami- matted dining room with simple, tasty food. Perfection.

At Kamikochi we abandoned the bikes and tent to hike in the Alps where it was sheer bliss to be in a curtained off cubicle on a platform in the mountain hut, with a hard thin futon and a japanese pillow (which are only one step up from the traditional wooden pillows) but with a thick warm quilt, listening to the wind roar over the building.IMG_1016.JPGIMG_1014.JPG

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The autumn colours are leaving the mountains now; only the Japanese larch is still glowing a dull burnt orange along the mountain flanks. A dusting of snow on the peaks farewelled us as we rode our last big climb over the highest pass of all; a 40k descent was our final reward.

Temples, Waterfall, Forests -Nikko

We learnt that Nikko is not only famous for the natural beauty of the region but also for its magnificent temple complex. The world heritage listed temple complex just north of town contains about 130 buildings and shrines set in magnificent ancient forest. The two main sites are Tosho-gu (Shinto) temple and Rinno-Ji (Buddhist). The early Shinto followers respected and worshipped nature; they merged with the Buddhist faith when it arrived in Japan around 660AD. The result of this merger is evident in the beautiful aesthetic buildings set in very tranquil gardens, purely Japanese. Some extraordinary carvings of birds made in the 1600s were a highlight, as were the famous 3 wise monkeys. We also really enjoyed some of the smaller, ancient and less visited shrines and sacred places deep in the forest.IMG_0913.JPGIMG_0912.JPG
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Samurai Autumn Festival – Nikko

We were lucky enough to be in Nikko for the Autumn Samurai Festival held over two days in October each year. Day 1 was a demonstration of Yabusame (horseback archery) which was very exciting. A special race was setup in the main corridor of the Temple complex with spectators all up one side and targets on the other. The proceedings started with a solemn parade of horses, riders and officials to the temple for ceremony. They were all decked out in traditional samurai regalia or long flowing Japanese robes and amazing head gear. The archers ride up the race loading & shooting arrows from a large bow at a full gallop, usually smashing the targets, all very exciting.
Day 2 was a parade to commemorate the death of a very important Shogen some time in the 1600’s. There were more than 800 people in traditional costume accompanying the portable shrine around the temple complex.

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