Old as the mountains, silent as the grave

The airport guard was trying to tell me something and he looked rather agitated, his hands whirling in some cross-linguistic mime. I thought I understood his message but I definitely didn’t like it. It was time to consult the cycle touring rulebook:

Bicycle touring rulebook page 1: When faced with hostile authorities, engage stupid smiling mode: “Sorry! I can’t understand you!”

The guard disappeared and I got back to assembling my bike after the long flight from … wait, here he was again in full peaked capped and double breasted regalia, presenting me with a a worn piece of A4 printed for just such an occasion.


Great. They take my landing fee, welcome me to their country … and then can’t be bothered to properly translate their stupid downer notice. Reasoning was useless: this was Japan, the land of the arcane yet unbreakable regulation. I’d have to move. It was also the land of politeness to a fault though, which meant … “Here you go!” I smiled brightly and dumped a bag in the surprised official’s arms, closely followed by several more, “The bike’s half disassembled so there’s too much to carry; you’ll have to take some”. Under my cheerful train of senseless English babble and the bulk of my luggage, he led me down three flights of stairs, waddling beneath a mound of bike parts and stopping every now and then when it all got too much his arms.

Cape Soya Japan Russia Sakhalin
Sakhalin from Cape Soya: where Japan and Russia meet

I had landed in a world that was far away from the raw, earthy wild of Alaska; a world where children walked primly to school in elaborate uniforms with hats and ties, where politeness was shown at every turn, where everything was ordered, perfect, neat and safe. As city gave way to country, the land reflected this mentality: perfectly trimmed little allotments used every piece of space with dignified order, vegetables planted row by ruler-straight row. Smiles were everywhere, and everything worked perfectly. I was charmed. A friend had recently come back from Japan and excitedly declared that “I’d live here!” and as I passed the engines of my trade – the factories for electronics giants Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba – I couldn’t help considering whether they’d take a copy of my CV.

Volcanoes from Hokkaido
Volcanoes from Hokkaido

I’d landed in Sapporo and my first leg took me up Hokkaido, the exposed northern island of winds, volcanoes and hot springs. With a quarter of Japan’s land area but a twentieth of its people, Hokkaido had an otherworldly deserted air to add to its rugged austerity: windswept fishing villages cling to the cliffs as they face outwards to the Sea of Okhotsk. I was closer to Vladivostok than to Tokyo here – a point reinforced when I met a pair of Russian cyclists finishing a tour of their country’s far east, and when I heard grumblings from the locals about tensions with Russia, over disputed islands that had been stripped from Japan at the end of the Second World War. Perhaps I wasn’t so far from Alaska after all. “Hokkaido is better if you can stand the winters” a Japanese friend told me, “It’s more liberal. It doesn’t have some of the practices you’ll find further south, like investigating investigating each other’s family lines when a couple is getting married for example.” The island had been a trip highlight and I lingered for weeks, but autumn had closed in and I’d condemned myself to chasing autumn down the rim of Asia. It was time to head south. I caught the evening ferry to Honshu at ten minutes’ notice – apparently quite normal round here where the oiled wheels of transport and industry meshed together in perfect synchronicity. It was time to tackle the mainland.

Fishing in the Sea of Okhotsk
Fishing in the Sea of Okhotsk: Japan is an island nation and they love to fish.

I’d stayed too long in Hokkaido and now as I inched my way down the main island of Honshu, every day was a little too cool. The roads were narrower here, the trucks more impatient and close pass happy. Whenever I tired though, a little piece of Japanese culture would sprint out to bring life to the day. There were the vending machines placed miles from anywhere, selling hot coffee and canned beer. There was the cafe in a small offshoot of a seaside town, themed lovingly after the American film director David Lynch. Each one was a reminder that although Japan had become more westernised than China would reveal itself to be, it was very much its own place: a mature culture with deep roots and a different set of priorities to what I was used to in the West. On a night I spent with an American missionary, he told me about the work life here: “The corporate guys, they don’t take holidays. They have the leave allowance but it’s frowned upon to take it; you’ll never get promoted if you do. Some people will go to see the Taj Mahal but they’ll be on a flight out one day and a flight back the next: one selfie and that’s the holiday done.” Perfection is the standard in Japan but this was the price of it. How many faulty Japanese products have you ever had? Then again, how many times have you seen a Japanese tourist?

Cafe & Bar Lynch
Cafe & Bar Lynch

As in every other country I’d visited, life on the road had its very own subculture, known to fleet drivers, truckers and the occasional long distance cyclist. There were the convenience stores that were second to none: the 7/11 and Lawson stores could be relied on for food, warmth, washrooms, power, coffee and WiFi – and what more does a cyclo-tourist need? Accommodation options were plentiful too: camping in city parks is allowed in Japan, or if not explicitly allowed then widely tolerated, and these became my regular haunts. Other places you can camp include motorway service stations (Ichi no Maki), and regular campsites. One night I’d camp next to two chefs, who’d spend the evening cooking up every delicacy they could think of to show off their country’s cooking. Another time I camped on top of a ruined castle, the only clear point above the sea of mist covering the valley below. On other nights I stayed in hotels when there was a typhoon warning, or in youth hostels, guest houses, or even a rider house. Standing alone next to a garage, this was a Japanese peculiarity: part of a low-key network of bargain bucket accommodation sites, where you could stay only if you’d arrived on two wheels – mostly intended for the motorcycles which obsess Japanese manhood, but cyclists get in too. I spent that night with two twenty year olds, striking out on a first tour of the islands, their heads filled with petrol fumes and with British and American classic rock – but with curious, inexplicable gaps that I attempted to fill in as the evening progressed.

If you want to feel like you're lost in a cyberpunk film, go to Japan
If you want to feel like you’re lost in a cyberpunk film, go to Japan

A day off in Kyoto prepared me for the last push down the southern end of Japan: I could relax and feel at home in the tourist city, thinking myself a local among the Starbucks shops and painted geishas that were so different from the north-heavy Japan I’d seen up till now.¬† I’d had the same feeling among the sightseeing crowds in Mostar, half a world away: it was easy to imagine myself where I lived York, getting annoyed with the tourists back home. After the rest, it was a mad dash down the southern islands of Shikoku and Kyushu, hopping from ferry to overnight ferry, getting to Fukuoka in two days. Shikoku in particular flew by, a spine of mountains inviting me back. I had a flight to catch from Seoul though, and I couldn’t afford to dally any longer. Southern Japan would have to wait for another time to be properly explored.

Japanese Vending Machine
A vending machine, fifteen miles out of town, selling coffee next to a scrapheap. Go figure.

When would ‘next time’ be? Some places like Portugal I can be fairly sure I’ll visit again. Somewhere as far away as Japan, I don’t know. I’d spent over a month there but there was so much more to see, so much more to absorb, so much to respect in this far away land that had developed to be a world leader in so many ways – and yet where the people seem uncertain, dogged by ennui, unsure of what their place will be in a present plagued by economic stasis and a future confronted with the rise of China.

The ferry slipped out between the islands of Fukuoka and I looked back on Japan for possibly the last time in my life. The horizon sunk below the waterline, leaving me unsure whether I would ever see it again. One thing I was sure of though: I knew I wanted to.

Hokkaido at Dusk
Hokkaido: Daisetsuzan at Dusk

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