Islands and Onsens, Sushi and Cities

After leaving you at Hiroshima I continued east along the coast. The first night back on the road I slept on the grounds of a shrine because I couldn’t find anywhere else suitable to sleep on the crowded coastline. Very early In the morning, while changing into my cycling shorts and stark bollock naked, an old lady came to the shrine and caught me in the nude, but she didn’t seem shocked at all which really surprised me. It was as if she had seen a young naked long-haired Englishman there every day for the past thirty years. Maybe she thought her prayers had been answered.

After my bizarre encounter with the old Japanese woman I continued along my coastal route with my sights firmly set on Shikoku island. Shikoku is situated south of Honshu, connected by three bridges and multiple ferry services. It is cradled by the shape of Honshu’s coast and in between lie hundreds of tiny islands that I wish I had had the time and a boat to explore. In Japan it is famous for its two-month [if you’re fast], 1400km long pilgrimage around the whole island where you must visit 88 temples and get a red stamp on your white shirt for each temple you visit. Definitely something to put on the bucket list! Many Japanese people do it in their old age once they’re retired.

The most westerly connection is the Shimanami Kaido, six beautiful islands and seven bridges that connect Shikoku to Honshu. It has been designed to be bike-friendly so that you can ride your bike all the way, island hopping using the bridges. Unfortunately, I ended up rushing a bit across these Islands because I had organised a Warmshowers host to stay with in the town of Imabari.

But, it was worth it. Tsuneto and Akiko, 79 and 75, are Warmshowers, Couchsurfing and AirBnb hosts. I was their 150th guest! They create a little profile for each guest and put it into a portfolio. It was a great experience staying one night with them in a very Japanese home. My room was tatami-floored and incredibly neat with Japanese artwork and paper walls and a comfortable futon mattress in the middle. Dinner was special: homemade sashimi and nigiri sushi. Breakfast was just as good. Tsuneto used to be a cardiologist and Akiko was a housewife, they have three grown up children, two of them still live in Japan and one lives in LA. Tsuneto and Akiko had both completed the Shikoku pilgrimage together 10 years previously.

The Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama

From Imabari I went to the city of Matsuyama 50km west, mainly for the Dogo onsen. An Onsen is the Japanese word for hot springs and because it is volcanically active Japan has thousands of them. The Dogo Onsen is one of Japan’s oldest and most famous. It is partly famous for appearing in the anime film Spirited Away. The basic baths are very reasonably priced as well at 400 Yen, which is about £2.70! And once you pay you can stay there all day. After my first culture shock being whipped with oak branches while starkers in a sauna in Russia I felt comfortable using the Japanese version, especially as no whipping was involved.

I haven’t yet found a better way to relax after a hard day’s cycle, it’s like a complete reset for your body and mind, and now that scientific research has been done it’s been proved that getting uncomfortably hot in a sauna or hot water is immensely good for you. In mimicking the effects of intense exercise it can cut heart attack risk in half, increase stem cell production and maintain muscle mass even while not exercising for long periods of time.

My shed shelter from the rain

From my reset in Matsuyama I continued on to the southern city of Kochi where I ended up holding out in a shed waiting for typhoon Trami to blow over, Japan’s worst in living memory.In driving horizontal rain and powerful wind I found an unlocked shed next to a building and cheekily took shelter there for the night, waking in the morning in the still ‘pre’ typhoon wind and rain laying in my sleeping bag I heard the door open and a gasp of surprise from the owner of the shed xho had found me but immediately there was an understanding as we both looked at my bike and then out of the window at the same time, he said it was ok which made me feel relieved… thirty minutes later I heard a knock at the door and in came the owner again but this time with coffee and sandwiches from the convenience store. Yet again I was being treated to the compassionate side of humanity when I could give nothing in return. One more night in the shed and I was off again under blue skies through the branch-strewn devastation of the typhoon. Cutting through the wild forested mountainous centre of Shikoku island I made my way to the eastern coast ready to catch a short ferry back to Honshu and to make my way to the cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Kanazawa.

Coffee and sandwich brought to my by the shed owner

I caught the ferry to Wakayama and then had just a short ride to Osaka where I didn’t manage to find a host on either Warmshowers or Couchsurfing. This really made me think about people. I’ve experienced so much kindness on this journey and never struggled to find a host anywhere, especially in the much poorer countries. But then here I am in the largest city so far on my journey through Japan, one of if not the most developed countries on the planet and I can’t find a single person to host me. It seems almost that the more people have the more insular they become, not as willing to share. To look upon this fact in a kinder light, I know that Japanese people are some of the most stressed in the world with little free time, so I forgave the hosts of Osaka and reminded myself that no one owes me anything. Who wants to have a smelly cyclist and his dirty bicycle in their home anyway.

Not finding a host turned out ok as I found a sneaky spot to sleep in the grounds of Osaka Castle. Built in 1583 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. It stands proudly over the city, surrounded by a mote. At night like many castles, it is lit by spotlights, creating a spectacular scene. Each tiered level with its overhanging roof creates an image of power and prestige coupled with protection and shelter.

Also on the grounds in front of the castle was a time capsule, ready to be opened 5000 years from now in the year of 6970. It made me laugh with a strange feeling of delight and excitement at my sudden change of perspective. I thought of the people who will open it, knowing that I will be dust but that I had stood there and touched it. It reminded me how short life is and how we must do our best to make the most of it and do the things that are scary but not dangerous (along with a few of the dangerous ones as well), to embrace discomfort and live life and not waste it in front of a screen watching others live theirs.

I couldn’t help wondering what we will be doing in 5000 years if we’ve managed to survive the many cliff edges we may possibly hang from as a civilisation between now and then. Will we even be ‘human’? With gene editing already happening in the short years since science really started and us humans already semi-cyborgs. Our smartphones are a window into a ‘complex’ digital world that many people spend hours in every day. AI will almost certainly be a reality in 5000 years, god on earth will exist, let’s hope it’s a benevolent one.

To some people reading this, what i just said may seem utterly ridiculous and you may think I’m a moron. I encourage you to read this blog post. Let me know if you still feel the same way after reading it.

Waking the next day on the castle grounds, I ended up ‘splashing out’ on the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life. I saw the restaurant Toki Sushi recommended on a travel blog and decided I would treat myself now that I was near the end of my journey and having been so frugal beforehand. It was an eye-watering £7.50 for 12 pieces of the most incredible nigiri sushi I’ve ever had in my life. The sushi chef spent twenty minutes making my food in front of me and the depth of flavour was immense. Like the best piece of music you have ever heard, it was a symphony of flavour created by the most simple of ingredients. Every ingredient was so fresh, you could taste each one, even the rice was absolutely fantastic, slightly warm with a subtle light taste of sesame oil and rice wine vinegar.

From Osaka – where I did very little apart from sleep at the castle, have some sushi and go to the National museum of art – I headed to Kyoto where I stayed for a week to see some of the 17 World Heritage sites which are just in Kyoto on its own! Famous all over the world as Japan’s most beautiful city, I was excited. I had some French architecture students as Couchsurfing hosts to stay with but arrived three days before I said I would. So I ended up sleeping in the city; in parks and under bridges. This sounds awful but it was actually lovely. Japan is so safe and clean with toilets and drinking fountains everywhere. It is a good place to be homeless, although you will rarely see homeless people which made me wonder what they do with them.

My bohemian lifestyle made me ponder my travel. I’ve lived in what you could describe as serious self-inflicted poverty for large chunks of my journey: filthy because I had no running water for washing, no electricity, no bed, little human contact and eating sometimes basic food – like in Kazakhstan where all I ate every single day was rice, eggs and fish, with a little tomato purée for flavour, which was often rancid because I forgot to check the sell by date. Vegetables, except onions and the odd wobbly cucumber, were hard to find because it was the wrong time of year.

When it is voluntary poverty it’s delightful, it is out of choice. That’s what freedom is maybe, choice. I felt so lucky, being able to sleep in a tent, unwashed and filthy, riding a bicycle every day in almost any country I chose, living other people’s dreams, knowing it’s cheaper to do that than to even live at home. I was so poor yet I felt like the richest person in the world – even they could not do what I’m doing because they have far too many commitments and responsibilities. They are owned by their wealth and possessions. Even if they managed to extricate themselves from this scenario to go and find themselves on a bicycle in a desert, through icy mountains and bear-infested Japanese forests, would they be able to resist that warm hotel and delicious meal in a restaurant when they’re ravenously hungry and really don’t want to set up their tent in cold rain and cook a litre of plain rice with a tin of fish… would you really be able to do that if you had all the money in the world? I know I would struggle.

If I write about all of the places in Kyoto to visit then this blog post would be enormous and maybe boring and I should leave you to discover it for yourself, either while armchair travelling or in person. A fact that I found amazing while I was in Kyoto was that it would have been obliterated just like Nagasaki and Hiroshima if not for U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who had it removed from the list of potential targets because he had beautiful memories of honeymooning there.

One of Kyoto’s most famous attractions is the Golden Pavilion, Rokuen-ji. It is a three-tier building with the top two floors covered entirely in gold leaf. Built in 1397, it was then deliberately burnt down in 1950 by a deranged 22-year-old monk called Hayashi Yoken who tried to kill himself on a hill behind the pavilion afterwards but fluffed it up and was spared a prison sentence due to a plea of insanity.

Surrounding the pavilion are stunning gardens, carefully manicured in a style that makes everything seem at one with nature, serene and peaceful. There are no right angles here like our classic Victorian-style gardens with their neatly manicured lawns and contained flower beds. Moss is encouraged to grow everywhere here instead. It covers the ground like a soft green blanket, creating a stillness as it absorbs a lot of the sound being made by the footfall of tourists. I was frustrated by the constricted busy path and the position of the sun wasn’t allowing the best light for photos but off to the side of the path was another gravel path with a yellow rope blocking the way. I decided to get my money’s worth out of my ticket and stepped over – hearing little gasps behind me – and got a path all to myself. The path offered great private views of the pavilion mirrored against the small lake that surrounds it, its image mirrored perfectly against the lake. Coming back onto the path, some people laughed and some looked at me in shock, apparently finding it unbelievable that I had broken this little rule.

The day after the golden pavilion I went to Ginkaku-ji, also called the silver pavilion it’s a smaller less ostentatious building with a much more subtle feel of calmness and even more beautiful zen gardens gently rolling over the grounds like a carpet of perfect foliage with trickling streams cutting through the mossy floor. A symbolic sand sculpture of Mt Fuji stands next to the pavilion. It was built in 1490 by Ahikaga Yoshimasa and represents Fuji’s beauty and stoic power.

Fushimi Inari-taisha

One of Kyoto’s most impressive attractions is the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine. It has paths leading up to Mt Inari. The paths are straddled by thousands of Tori gates which are donated and represent a wish of a family or business that has come true or that they want to come true. It is a forty minute walk to the top, the steepish paths making all of the tourists pant and murmur ‘how much further’ while sweating and staring at the steps. This is when I realised again how unfit the majority of people are, which made me sad, they don’t realise what they’re missing out on.

The stunning view at the top

My Couchsurfing hosts in Kyoto were very busy with their architecture internship but they recommended an excellent Sento, which is essentially an Onsen except the water isn’t heated by geothermal energy but by the ancient fossil fuel gig. It was excellent, there was a really cold pool, a very hot sauna and to my great surprise an electric shock pool which caused me to jerkily shout in terror while naked, thinking I had overdone it in the sauna and was having a fit. My legs seizing up, I struggled to drag myself out and of the old Japanese men pretended nothing was happening. I shall say no more about Kyoto and leave you to explore its fantastic beauty for yourself. Just prepare to be swamped by tourists as you wonder around being a tourist.

From Kyoto I headed north to Kanazawa, the mini Kyoto, probably a very annoying description for Kanazawians. Also a very beautiful city, but calmer. The highlight this time, as has often been the case, were my hosts. Nobu and his mother Sacchan live a 20-minute bike ride from the centre and own a small pub, known as an Izakaya. Izakayas are delightful places that I would have spent much more time in if I had money, luckily I don’t. They serve beer and small plates of food.

Nobu spent six years cycling around the world and had only been home for a year so I imagine he was still adjusting, getting back on his feet, you can watch some of his great YouTube videos here. While I was there I was undeservedly treated to the most amazing homemade breakfasts and dinners, with Kirin beer on tap. It was truly an incredible experience and I’m so unbelievably grateful to Nobu and his mum Sacchan. Thank you!

The first place to visit in Kanazawa are the Kenrokuen gardens opposite the castle. Famous as some of the most beautiful gardens in Japan, they look out over the city with ponds shadowed by maple trees turning red in the autumnal shift that makes Japan so breathtakingly beautiful at this time of year. In a similar style to other Japanese gardens I’ve seen, moss covers the floor and water with gently flowing streams with small water features cut through the gardens. There is a delicateness and subtlety that makes the gardens so peaceful, arresting that zen-like aura. Just like the gardens of the silver and golden pavilions, you feel like if you were alone you could sit there for hours meditating.

The geisha district and samurai district of Kanazawa are also a must see and hark back to the Japan many of us might imagine when we think of it. It makes you reminisce about a time and place you’ve never been. What a trip that would be, to go back in time to ancient Japan, a place we can only go to in our imaginations.

From Kanazawa – after seeing the National museum of contemporary art and some more shrines –I set off towards Matsumoto and Nagano through the Japanese Alps where I had an experience I shall never forget…

TO BE CONTINUED…

P.s. If you loved reading this post and are looking forward what happened next, then why not donate to a good cause too? I’m raising money for CLIC Sargent and Hope and Homes for Children and about halfway towards my £5,000 target. Look them up and see for yourself the incredible work they do.

Japan

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