Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Shirahama: a little bit of Australia in Japan, Part 2

Arriving in Shirohama, I met up with my friends and boarded a bus to the beach, about 15 minutes away. They'd arrived at an earlier train (the first one of the day), but had spent the extra hour or so looking for a hotel for the night (everything seemed packed to the gills, so the few spots still available were being hawked for a tidy sum, around $90 per person per night).

The beach was small, but beautiful. The sand, as promised, was white and reasonably fine. For a Japanese beach, there was little trash around, too. (Tip: don't assume that beaches in Japan are as clean as the city streets usually appear to be; over the course of the bike ride we did some beach cleanups and pulled out what seemed like an unlimited supply of bottles, cans, cigarrette butts, remains of fireworks and other assorted junk out of the sand.) The water was a very pretty blue and the area was a bay -- shallow for a long way out with very calm waters. Also, unlike the water around Hokkaido or even Sado, the water here was very pleasantly warm. There was plenty of space to lounge on the beach, great snorkeling areas, and a good handful of people walking around the beach in furry boots or high heels to make fun of.

After a few hours of enjoying the warmth (no direct sun, it was cloudy the whole time) and walking around the beach, we walked over to the hotel so my friends could check in. Took them a bit to get settled in, but I didn't mind in the least -- right outside their hotel was one of the "ashiyu", or foot baths, spread around the area. It looks a bit like a fancy bus stop on a street corner, with a nice bamboo reed roof. Underneath is what could pass for a small and pretty city fountain, except that it's surrounded by wooden seating (enough for about 9 people or so, around the three sides that aren't the street) and it's constantly flowing with natural hot spring water. Passerby are welcome to take their shoes off and soak their feet in the hot water, so that's what I did for a good 20 minutes, chatting a bit with the people who were sitting around me. (Tip: conversations in Japanese in such circumstances generally feature the word "kimochi" -- literally, "feeling", usually used to mean "feels good". Use that with slightly different intonations and you've covered about 70% of what most native Japanese would say. Another 20% are probably onomatopeas. :) )

We asked around a bit as to what else there was to do, since by that time there were some clouds rolling around and we felt an occasional drizzle. Most people there were a bit flustered when we asked, though. Not sure if that's because everyone else researches what they're going to see there before going (instead of just showing up and seeing what happens like we did), or because there really isn't anything besides the beach.

We settled on walking along the coast for a bit and, besides beautiful views, also found a small aquarium (they were closing for the day by the time we got there, though it didn't seem like it was quite the attraction to travel all the way there for), a small cave (with space to hide and scare the daylights out of your friends behind you), and a glass-bottom boat boarding area (would have been really pretty there, there were tons of fish even close to the main beach; sadly they, too, were done for the day). On the way back, we noticed several dozens of people had joined the handful of fishermen previously sitting along the coastline. Given the obscene number of cameras mounted on tripods facing a small island with a natural archway behind which the sun would set, we figured out they everyone was dutifully waiting for the sunset. Since it was cloudy and drizzling and the sun wasn't visible anyways, we left them to it and made our way back to town.

Although I'd brought my camping gear, I decided to call it a day and head back home. Camping on the beach is great, but rain takes away a lot of the fun. (Plus, if I want to get rained on at the beach, I can go to Half Moon Bay back home anytime. :) ) Fortunately, I did get a seat on the train back home. There are some advantages to boarding a train at its first station. :)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Shirahama: a little bit of Australia in Japan, Part 1

Following the Japanese government call for more money to be spent traveling within the country, I decided that today it would be fun to spend some time in the sun, digging my toes into the fine white sand of a good beach, and set off to meet some friends I met recently at a lindy hop event in Osaka.

My destination was Shirahama. The place, as the name in Japanese suggests ("white beach") is known for its fine white sand. (What they only mention on the footnote, however, is that much of the current sand is imported from Australia.) It's in the Wakayama district, south of Osaka, and therefore a good 3 hours of train riding away from where I'm staying in Shiga. That meant getting up very early to get there in time to enjoy the day. Most fortunately, the sun still shows up for work at a very, very early hour in the morning around here. Nothing like the daft pre-4am sunrises we got in Hokkaido in August, but still early enough that the day was well along its usual routine by the time I biked off to the train station at 6:45.

Since it's a national holiday, the express commuter train I boarded towards Osaka was understandably on the empty side, with a few bleary eyed riders reading a book, plugged into a music player, or just simply passed out. In Osaka, however, I boarded a limited express train towards Shirahama (tip: "limited" express is faster than express... the "limited" does not refer to the train's speed OR the extra money the train company feels entitled to charge for riding those trains). Around here, you can be sure you're taking a special train when it has a name and number. I was waiting for "Ocean Arrow #5". Since I bought tickets at the last minute, I only had unreserved seat tickets (these special trains usually have a few reserved seat wagons and a few unreserved seat wagons). The catch is that an "unreserved seat ticket" only guarantees that they'll let you be in the unreserved seat wagon on the train (general laws of physics and biology permiting). It most definitely does not guarantee a seat.

Turns out I wasn't the only one to think Shirohama might be cool for the day, so I got to stand for a good hour and a half in the train, an honor I shared with what felt like at least 40 or 50 other people just in that one wagon. Not packed by Japanese standards (packed=so crowded that everyone is wedged in to the point where it's physically impossible to fall, tip, sit, turn, etc), but definitely cozy. Fortunately Shirahama wasn't the only destination, so I did eventually manage to grab a seat and catch a good 30 minutes of sleep before the little jingle came on over the loudspeakers and a chipper conductor announced we were arriving in Shirohama.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Japan Biking Tip: Dealing with the Heat

It's not just hot, it's hot and humid, so heat management is very important while biking here in Japan in the Summer. Here are some thoughts so far:

- Drink tons of water. Seriously. I usually go through about 4 liters (over a gallon) in a day's ride, and I'm usually still a bit dehydrated when I arrive. Take every opportunity to drink a bit of water (barley tea or juice works great, too), it's better than trying to chug a liter of water every other hour. When you're close to town, traffic lights work well as reminders, farther out use road distance markers. :)

- Buy ice. Most convenience stores will sell a bottle of frozen green tea or orangeade for about $1.50. Put that in the back pocket of your jersey for instant cooling action. Plus, you get to drink something that's ice cold as it melts. (Note: if you drink all the liquid, the ice won't be touching the bottle walls anymore, meaning your back won't be getting cooled anymore. To remedy, just add water to the bottle after drinking. As long as you don't mind slightly diluted tea, it works great.)

- Towel and handkerchief. I've started carrying a towel on my handlebar to dry off occasionally. Unlike in dry climates, where sweat dries off and cools you in the process, around here it just soaks your skin for the most part. To avoid heat rash and make it easier for the sweat that remains to cool you off, just towel off occasionally. The handkerchief I soak in water and tie around my neck to help with cooling. (They also sell something for that purpose in sports stores around here for about $10. Advantages include keeping more water and dripping a lot less, so it cools you for longer. Disadvantages include not working as a handkerchief should you need one, possibly looking dorkier, and being pricier than a handkerchief.)

- Take a long lunch break. The hottest part of the day is usually around 1-2pm. That's also the best time to find a restaurant or michi no eki (see below) and spend sometime out of the sun and in the a/c while refueling and drinking as much water/juice/tea as you can.

- Stop at michi no eki's (translates as "road stations"). They're really nice, have good food and a selection of local produce and goods, and plenty of space to relax for a bit from riding. Not all areas have them, though, so check ahead. If you're in an area where there aren't any michi no eki's, there will likely be convenience stores (not nearly as nice but, well, convenient, and they're always blasting the a/c at artic settings). Another stop that works is a Gasuto ("guest") chain restaurant. I like them mainly because they have a drinking water spiggot I can use freely during the meal, so I don't have to bug the waitstaff to refill the tiny water glass eight times during the meal. :)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Host Family Visit

Left Uji this morning and made my way to Otsu, where I'm getting to visit my host family for the first time in 12 years! なつかしい! :)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Kyoto Daytrip - Part 2

A short ride on the subway later we found ourselves on the right side of the mountain, and within 10 minutes had arrived at our first large temple. It was already mid-afternoon by this point. Wanting to make sure we didn't get to Kiyomizu Temple too late to go in, we crammed 5 people into a taxi cab for the last 3 km of the way there.

Kiyomizu Temple is still one of my favorite places in Kyoto. Not only are the temple buildings themselves incredibly beautiful, but the whole thing is set on the Eastern Kyoto mountains, giving both beautiful green scenery and a view of Kyoto itself that even the 12 floor fancy department store rooftop terrace can't match. The main pavillion is made entirely out of wood (meaning no nails, glue, rebar, etc, went into its construction... it's sort of like a centuries old set of Jenga that, fortunately, no one has played).

There are (at least) three interesting 'side attractions' there as well. The first one is a temple with an underground passageway. A handrail guides visitors through a winding maze where part of the path is in complete darkness, underneath the temple area. Supposedly it's to simulate the experience of rebirth and renewal. Definitely fun as a self-powered "ride". Your spiritual experience may vary.

Next is a 'love' temple, where people come to pray for finding someone to be with. More amusingly, there are two stones at the temple, about 20' apart. Story goes that if touches the first stone, closes their eyes, then manages to walk in a straight line and find the second stone while thinking of a person, then that person is their true love (or equivalent). Makes for fantastic people watching, especially when a big group of students rolls by. Sadly, by the time we got there, that part of the temple was already closed.

The third bit of folklore I like is about the three branches of the spring at Kiyomizu. There is a platform, and from above that the natural spring water comes down in three streams. The original story I heard was that the spring is a wish-granting fountain. Each of the three streams would grant something different to the drinker: health, longevity, or wisdom (in some stories love substitutes one of those three). The catch: you only get to drink from one of the fountains in your life. Which one would you pick?

New to that area this year was a sign that, besides hawking the new 'holy bowls' that people could buy for 200 yen to drink out of (the old steel ones are still there, still hold water just fine, still cost nothing), also talks about the fountains. It explains that, although many believe that each branch of the spring grants something different, "the Temple has no comment" on those stories, and holds that the fountain is a wish-granting fountain. So apparently you get a long, wise, healthy life (with great love to boot), and you can drink from one or all three of the fountains, as many times as you like. (They did stop short of mentioning that wishes would work better if one drinks from the 200 yen holy bowl. Though I suppose it might be healthier, since you're not sharing with hundreds of other people.) Definitely more pleasant, but it does kinda take the introspective aspect out of the legend of the three fountains of Kiyomizu Temple. (Kiyomizu, by the way, means something like 'clear water'.)

Leaving the temple, we wound our way through the densely packed tourist shop street that leads up to the temple gates and sells everything from local sweets, tea, ice cream, to chopsticks, painted fans, keychains, and whatever doodahs you might wish with 'Kyoto' printed on them somewhere. We picked up some suprisingly bland green tea ice cream (come on, Kyoto, you can do better!) and some really great black sesame sweets.

Back in the streets of Kyoto, we stopped at a kimono (traditional Japanese clothing) store. One of our friends wanted to get a yukata (less formal clothing, generally worn during festivals; seen on the streets of Kyoto more often then elsewhere in the country), so we spent the next hour or so watching as she tried on and eventually was outfitted in a beautiful yukata. (She actually got a very nice yukata, on the formal end of the spectrum for that style.) The woman at the store who helped us and who patiently taught her how to put on the yukata (hint: there's more ties than just the big pretty 'obi' holding eveything in place... two extra for yukata, three for kimono) and how to tie that fancy bow on the obi (sash).

One interesting bit of trivia: in Japan, dressing someone into a kimono is a licensed profession, and takes three years of night school to get licensed into it.

From there, we walked (slower now that one of us was wearing traditional Japanese wooden shoes, 'geta') to a nearby Japanese restaurant that the shop clerk had recommended. Beautiful tatami room (with the merciful cutout under the table, so we didn't have to sit on our legs for the whole meal), great decor. Only catch: the menu was entirely in Japanese calligraphy. No pictures, no translations, nothing printed. Fortunately, the place specialized in odengo, or essentially bits of various yummy things cooked in broth. Since there were only 12 different things on the menu (that number keeps coming up, no?) and 5 of us, I just ordered one of everything.

About halfway through, the lady who helped us at the kimono store stopped by to say hello, on her way to her own meal. She really stood by her recommendation. :)

On the way back to the hotel, we still stopped by some temples in Gion that were lit up at night for some photos. We also made a stop at a hole-in-the-wall place for some really yummy croquettes. (I actually got an egg croquette, which is essentially a sunny side up fried egg -- made inside a small metal circle to keep it croquette-sized -- that was then battered and deep fried like a croquette. Quite good.)

From there, my friends headed back to their hotel and I made my way back to the train station and eventually Uji.

Kyoto Daytrip - Part 1

It cooled off significantly around Kansai today, making for perfect weather for walking around town. Uji is part of greater Kyoto, so a quick 20 minute train ride had me at Kyoto station with nearly two hours free before my friends arrived from Tokyo.

The Kyoto station was thoroughly rebuilt twelve years ago (the new building opened round about when I was leaving, so I never got to explore it much). I don't know the story behind it but, roughly, a big department store asked wouldn't it be nice if there was a 12 floor fancy department store and hotel on top of the Kyoto train station. And while at it, why not make it more exciting by cutting out the middle of the building out and putting stairs and escalators that go in an uninterruped, 45 degree angle, straight line from street level to the rooftop 12 stories up? I don't get vertigo easily, but the sheer scale of looking directly up (or down!) 12 floors of steps is a bit daunting. Sure, there are landings every floor or two, but those do little to dispel the mental image of slipping and tumbling 12 floors. Very nice view from the top, though! (Oh, and the terrace at the top is called 'Happiness Terrace'. No explanation given.)

Once I met up with my friends, we went in search of food. Since the whole escalator thing is an experience in itself, we went to the top and checked out the restaurants there. Food prices in Japan are often relative to how far off the ground the restaurant is situated, so after a quick tour of menus with lots of zeros, we decided that it would also be fun to ride the escalators down before lunch. Somewhere around the 2nd basement level, two floors below street level, we found tons of yummy food at good prices. :)

From there, they went to check into their hotel. That place, too, is new since the time I lived here. Of interest, it's right next to what used to be the street car stop I used every day to go to school in Kyoto. There used to be a small garden there and a few houses and buildings. Now a subway line took the place of the street car, and a very nice, very, very fancy hotel has taken over for the garden and houses.

From there we took a beautiful walk around the mountains. Unfortunately for us, being on the wrong side of the mountains from the temple we wanted to see, the pass on the map the hotel provided didn't actually exist according to the more accurate maps by subway stations along the way. (Note: if you're ever lost in Japan, look for a subway, train or bus station, they generally have very detailed local maps. Note 2: if, like me, you're a purist and like your maps oriented so that North is up, be ready for North to be just about any direction BUT up on those station maps.)

To be continued...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tea Time in Uji

My current stop is Uji, a major tea producing region in Japan, and possibly the one with the best tourist industry built around it.

The city lies along a river, close to some mountains that make the whole place incredibly picturesque. Along a few streets, tea shops and restaurants line up and compete for attention from the passerby. This morning I was up before most restaurants opened, so I headed to Byodo-in, a temple complex nearby.

The main feature is the Phoenix Hall, so named both because the building layout has two wings and a rather unusual "tail" hallway extending behind it, and because the two main ornaments on the highest roof are phoenix statues. The hall is a World Heritage Site, and the phoenix statues themselves are rated National Treasures in Japan. The building has a beautiful reflecting pool in front of it, and is surrounded by well maintained gardens, winding paths, and about 100 middle-schoolers on field trips, all taking turns posing for photos in front of the Hall. (Number of middle-schoolers may vary.) The inside of the Hall is said to have been designed to portray the land of the Buddha (it gets more complicated than that, but the intricacies are best left to someone who actually knows more about Pure Land Buddhism than me).

Since I was last here, they've built a gorgeous museum and used computers to simulate what the Phoenix Hall probably looked like when it was first built, around a thousand years ago. Wars, reconstructions and time have taken most of the glitter off it, but it must have been quite dazzling at the time. The Hall itself has escaped fire damage for its whole life, so much of it is actually original. A lot of the surrounding buildings did not survive, however, and the current area is smaller than the original complex.

After sightseeing, some of the stores were opening for business, so stopped to get a green tea ice cream, with powdered green tea on top. Except for inhaling green tea on the first bite (not recommended, though it amused everyone around who had already choked on their powdered green tea earlier), it was truly delicious.

I eventually found a place serving handmade green tea udon (thick noodles) for lunch. In the afternoon, a tea house overlooking the river served me some kabuse cha (green tea that, for part of the growing period, had nets spread over the plants; the shade forces the plant to increase the amount of chlorophyl, making the tea a darker green) and as much hot water as I wanted. (The tea was strong, but really smooth and rather sweet. Delicious.) Finally, to top off the late afternoon, I got some green tea shaved ice that was probably the best shaved ice I've ever had. I think I actually had enough green tea for the day. :)

As the day drew to a close, I stopped by the Tale of Genji Museum (also quite new and beautifully done). Besides lots of kimonos and drawings, they had built a few scenes from the story, put together a "smelling area" with samples of the smells referenced in the story (fortunately, being a romance, they were largely very pleasant smells), and had a movie theater with an HD projector showing a 20 minute enactment of the story. Not bad! (The Tale of Genji was actually writen, supposedly, around Ishiyama, close to Lake Biwa, to the Northeast of here. However, part of the story was set in Uji -- something along the lines of "we'll always have Uji".)

Although the day was quite warm, a strong wind cooled things off in the later afternoon. The place I'm staying at overlooks the river and, besides being a hotel, is also a souvenir shop and small restaurant. My room is enormous by Japanese standards, with two 6-mat rooms and dividers between the two (that's about two 12'x12' rooms). Interestingly, looks like the inner room used to be a tea room (there's a telltale cutout on the tatami mats for where the water heater goes for a tea ceremony). No wonder I slept so well last night. :)

Monday, September 7, 2009

"Riding" through the Mountains

I've gotten used to people here saying 'oh, you can't do that' when I ask about routes for biking from one city to another. Generally, they really just mean 'I would never bike there'. For the most part, telling them that I've already biked to where I'm standing from the northernmost point in Hokkaido, about 1,600km away, is enough to chance their concept of what is doable.

However, this time I got the full 'dame', with hands crossed in front of body in an X shape. (That's the most common way of expressing something that is prohibited, wrong, unavailable, etc. It doesn't necessarily have a negative connotation. The greater the certainty, the higher up the arms for the X. :) ) There are mountains between Tsu and Uji, today's destination. That's pretty common in Japan, and no news to me. However, it turns out that the two mountain passes within biking range of Tsu are expressways that neither allow bikes nor have provision for a place to bike on. Oops.

Generally, when looking at a map, anything marked as a bypass (baipasu) or as IC will not allow bikes. Everything else has some way for bikes to make it through, even if drivers there pretend otherwise (I'm looking at you, Route 12 in Hokkaido). The catch is not all maps bother to mention when something is a bypass (IC's are large, require tolls, and are generally very well marked).

So, today I am enjoying the gorgeous view of the mountains between the coastline where Tsu and Ise lie and the valley where Kyoto is from the air conditioned comfort of a local train. (Yes, they're slower, but they're also cheaper and, more importantly, it's easy to bring the bike case in because they have space for people to ride standing. Express trains, with reserved seats, look more like airplanes inside and therefore are a bit trickier when it comes to cramming a 32" suitcase.) Plus, you get to see a lot more from a local train (this brings back memories of going to Hiroshima on nothing but local trains... took 8 hours there, 8 hours back, leaving us with two and a half hours to see Hiroshima... but it only cost $20 for the train tickets! :) ).

Tsu, and the various cities around that area, seemed primarily industrial and bureaucratic. Lots of cement buildings, likely designed with a big brick as muse and inspiration, and wide paved roads formed most of the scenery. It's unusual for Japan in that it combines that wide open space, stripmall 'je ne sais quoi' with a few struggling elements of Japanese culture, making for something with what I think may be a rather narrow appeal.

Ise, with its shrines and nearby mountains, was the first to really show something like character in the area. As the train made it past Ise, where I'd biked to, and up into the mountains, it was like riding back into Japan. Small towns with more traditional Japanese houses with ornamented roofs (even a few bright blue roofs, something I hadn't noticed since leaving Hokkaido, where for no reason anyone there knew, ALL roofs are painted blue), shrines, and something planted in every available flat(ish) open surface.

As we come back down the mountains, the cities gradually got more densely packed. Soon, it was the end of the school day and kids in uniform started packing into the trains.

The sun was setting as I arrived in Uji. As I wheeled away from the station, the first people I talked to asked me if I knew of a good place to have tea around here.

Uji is off to a great start. :)

Greetings from Uji!

Arrived safely in Uji, one of the major tea centers of Japan, really excited to go exploring tomorrow! Travel updates soon.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ride Report: Ise

Total distance: 80km

Rolled out this morning after about 12 hours of sleep. At 10am it was already quite hot out. The cloudiness from Nagoya has completely dissipated now, and the temperature was around 32C (90F) by the time I stopped for a break around 11am.

The road, still route 23, was still nicely paved, wide (two lanes each way plus space for bikes) and blissfully free of broken glass. Got some nashi (asian pear) juice during the break -- really refreshing!

Since this is a round trip, I got to ride without the trailer. (Kind of feels like an engine upgrade, makes it easy to accelerate from a stop or climb up bridges.) Within about two hours I'd cleared the 40km to Ise and was pulling into the outer Ise shrine.

The Ise shrines are supposed to be some of the holiest places in Shinto, and are dedicated to Amaterasu-omikami (nerd reference -- this is the same as the deity who's the main character in the PS2 game Okami). The shrines are in beautiful condition, partly due to the huge amount of care they put into it, mainly due to the custom of tearing down and rebuilding the whole thing every twenty years, simbolizing the cicle of death and renewal. So the shrines I got to see today were actually the 61st incarnations of those shrines. They're still built to the same specifications as the originals, supposedly, and their design is unique among all shrines. Each shrine has an equally sized, mostly empty spot next to it, where the next shrine will be built before the current one is torn down. Over the generations, the shrine switches between the two sites. The only thing that stays constant is the center post in each site. It's not removed or destroyed; instead, they build a tiny wooden "hut" around it before taking down the shrine around it. The hut only gets removed once the next shrine is built on top of it, so the center posts are never visible to the outside. The next rebuild is due for 2013.

Uncharacteristically for Japan, some areas of the shrine do not allow photography. Although heavily patrolled by security, it was interesting to note that they only wrote "no photography" in Japanese on the signs... I wonder if they just don't get very many foreign tourists here, given that it's out of the way and has a much greater spiritual and historical signficance than it has postcard appeal...

The inner and outer shrines are about 5km away from each other, so once I was done strolling around the beautiful woods surrounding the outer shrine, I headed in the direction of the inner shrine till I found a nice looking italian restaurant that served me some pizza and really icy water and let me sit in the a/c for a while. :)

Another 4km brought me to the Inner Shrine (Naiku). This one is significantly bigger than the Outer Shrine, although the layout is very similar. The Inner Shrine is also where all the tourists go, apparently, for unlike the Outer Shrine, this one was packed with flocks of tourists (though still hardly any foreigners, and no signs in any language other than Japanese... gotta give them credit, even 'bathrooms, this way' looks good when written in Japanese calligraphy on a wooden sign).

The inner shrine is set along a creek at the foot of the mountains, and although it also has wooded areas, it has much more of a landscape than the Outer Shrine, with gorgeous mountains in the background. I picked up a mango shaved ice from a store that had an absolutely dizzying number of flavors for shaved ice and followed the throngs for a tour of the Inner Shrine.

With everyone there, it wasn't a meditative experience, but it was beautiful and nevertheless inspiring. Having been to some of the most important spiritual sites in Europe, I really enjoyed being somewhere so full of light and trees and water and people laughing and generally having a good time enjoying the beauty of the surroundings.

Around 4pm, having made the full rounds, I chugged an iced tea and started on my way back to Ise. The weather was beautiful -- still sunny, but the temperature was already dropping to a more comfortable range (sun sets between 6 and 7pm around here... also rises around 5am). The headwind from this morning was still around, but this time as a tailwind it helped me zoom along, returning the strength it had sapped in the morning's ride.

Along the way, tractors tilled the fields with flocks of white birds happily plocking along behind the blades.

Made it back to the ryokan riding on the tailcoat of the last of today's daylight and headed straight for the bath to scrub off the road grime (the stuff collects really fast on top of sunscreen) and soak my muscles. And now, for some dinner. :)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Ride Report: Nagoya to Tsu

Total ride distance: 85km

It was cloudy as I rolled out of downtown Nagoya this morning. Within the city center, the roads were comfortably wide, althogh the traffic lights at every intersection slowed me down a good bit. Early on the ride there was a bit of rain spitting down from the sky, but by lunch time the sky had cleared completely.

As I found route 1 and followed it southwest out of Nagoya, the road gradually narrowed and the sidewalk turned into the more common collection of potholes, traffic signs, cones and random bumps that characterizes the shoulder of most roads around here, so my pace continued unabashedly slow through largely uninteresting low density city areas. Occasionally a larger intersection had an overpass for pedestrians and no pedestrian crosswalk. The first one I came to, I hauled bike and trailer up, over and down the other side. Having thoroughly proven to myself that that was a far more hazardous venture than just following traffic across instead, I ignored overpasses after that.

After two long bridges (both of which had nice cycling paths separated from the car traffic by several inches of solid steel), got to Kuwana, where the road widened again and I found a nice cafe to grab some lunch and rest during the hottest hour of the day.

Right after lunch, found a bike shop and finally got some chain lube. (I'd been borrowing some from the team before, and the suff we had wasn't very water resistant, so it had all washed off in the downpour in Tokyo.) My chain had been quite unhappy, so cleaning and lubricating it made it feel like I was riding a new bike. :)

Soon after, the path I mapped shifted from Route 1 to 23, which goes along the coast till Tsu. If navigating 1 had been tricky, then (excuse nerd reference) 23 was like doing the Deathstar trench run on a B-Wing. Instead of enemy fire, I was dodging the ridiculous amount of broken glass on the road. The cycling area itself wove in and out, up and down, passed through one tunnel with a 1.6m clearance (wtf? I'm 1.76m tall, for reference), randomly disappeared into patches of grass or shot off away from the highway and didn't tell anyone how to get back, and a few times ended inside some random factory's parking lot, leaving some gate guards rather puzzled as to while a touring bike was leaving the factory...

Got a nice reprieve when said path dropped completely away from 23 and landed on 6 for a few km. A much nicer route, with less traffic and more space to bike, not to mention less broken glass. By the time I rejoined 23, it had turned into a full highway with a nice, unused frontage road. Also met a stiff headwind at that point, but since I didn't have to deal with ADD paths, broken glass, potholes or traffic, it was still quite pleasant. :)

The last part of the ride went by fairly quickly, and soon I was passing that weird zone just outside a bigger city where all the outlet malls and big chain stores plunk themselves (yea, it's just the same in Japan now as in the US). Stopped for directions a couple of times to zero in on my ryokan and was comfortably installed in a very nice 8-mat room before 5:30pm. The place is really hard to find, which may explain why it was so cheap ($30/night).

Now for some dinner and a good night's sleep. Tomorrow I head with the bike unloaded to Ise and back.

Arrived in Tsu

Beautiful riding weather, though mostly city riding. Now safely in a ryokan, full update soon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Mexican

You know you're in Japan when you're at a pub called The Mexican, the waitstaff is wearing black cowboy outfits, the decor involves victorian chandeliers with orange lighting, the beer on tap is Kirin, and Black Eye Peas is playing. :)

PS: You know you've been in Japan for a while when it takes you 30 minutes to notice the place is actually named "Mexigan". I asked them about it, it's actually on purpose, and apparently the reason why the waitstaff has gun holsters on their belts (filled with those pre-packaged moist napkins used in restaurants here).

Puns aside, it's actually a really nice place to hang out. The staff was awesome and gave me all kinds of tips on what to eat and what to see in Nagoya. They just opened a few days ago, so if you're around Nagoya's Sakae area, definitely check them out. :)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Going to the Movies

Since yesterday was such a windy, rainy day, I figured I'd engage in the time-honored tradition of spending part of those days at the movies. Having picked a japanese animation movie, I went up to the cashier, who proceeded to cram about eight paragraphs of information and questions into about two minutes. It roughly boiled down to finding out my preferred seating area in the theater and assigning me a specific seat, for which I proceeded to cough up about $18. Ouch.

Having my seat already secured, I knew I could take my time, since I didn't need to fight the crowd of about 9 other people who were also watching a movie aimed at kids on what happens to be the first Monday of the Japanese school year. I eventually installed myself on seat H18 just in time to catch the beginning of the commercials. At that theater, there weren't any ads like in most US theaters, and they contented themselves in alternating short clips of puppies playing (yea, it was cute) and random informational clips (gems such as "don't trip on the stairs", "don't kick the chair in front of you", and the more usual "in case of fire here's what we hope you'll do instead of panicking and hiding under your folding seat"). That was followed by maybe 3 or 4 trailers for upcoming movies, and before we knew it, the feature film. All in all, most enjoyable if rather pricey.

As far as flasbacks go, I guess this one is right up there with biking in the rain. Last movie I saw in Japan, twelve years ago, was a japanese animation (Princess Mononoke, from Ghibli Studios; it had just come out, so my seat preference then had been boiled down to "what's still available", which turned out to be a seat roughly 3 inches from the projection screen... I mostly remember the characters being reeeeeally tall, with tiny heads).

Monday, August 31, 2009

Just Biking in the Rain

It had been a while since I'd biked through one of Japan's torrential typhoon-level downpours. Twelve years, in fact.
Last time I had no waterproof gear (I'm not counting the umbrella, since that gave up and ran for cover whimpering when faced with the wind that day), and must have been quite an amusing sight by the time I made it home, given how long it took my host Mom to control the giggles after seeing me drip into the entrance hallway.
This time, I have full rain gear (worked quite nicely, my clothes and hair stayed dry in spite of being under a waterfall for a good hour straight), my shoes are sandals and attach to the bike pedals (so no slipping off), and I have strong lights on the bike. However, I'm also carrying every possesion I have in Japan with me in a trailer behind the bike. (The trailer is mostly waterproof... it did leak a bit underneath, I'm guessing where the axle connects to the suitcase.)
I made the trip from Shinbashi to Asakusa with no trouble (though I'm not as much a fan of the pedestrian dodging game on a bike as I used to be in High School), checked into a hostel for the next two nights, and now I'm tucked into a restaurant booth cuddling a cup of hot tea.
Some lessons learned: my bike bell doesn't make much of a useful sound when it's waterlogged (but whistling works ok in all but the worst downpours); wet polished metal is slippery (and having four wheels is more stable than just having two); people in Tokyo do a great job of not noticing that I'm biking with a big trailer behind me while at the same time managing to dodge me, the bike and the trailer; the ubiquitous transparent plastic umbrella is really useful when trying to navigate crowded streets in Tokyo's diagonal or horizontal rains (people who couldn't see through their umbrellas did remarkably poorer on dodging).
Also, hot tea makes everything better. :)