After my horrendous bear experience – which I’m incredibly grateful for because it’ll make a great story for my future grandchildren, even if I don’t wish to repeat it – I made my way east towards Matsumoto. I cycled mostly through cold rain, but had breaks of blue sky to enjoy the stunning Japanese alps in Autumn.
Why did I choose to head east towards Matsumoto and not directly to Tokyo? Well, it has a beautiful castle and that’s about all I knew. Matsumoto was on the way to Nagano where I wanted to try and see the famous snow monkeys in the hot springs which turned out to be a totally fruitless endeavour after cycling over 100km in the wrong direction from Tokyo. It would have given me a lifelong hatred towards Japanese macaques if not for the fact that I eventually managed to see some just by luck in a tree at dusk before they were scared off by me and climbed down from their lookout.
This last part of my journey really did feel rather strange, being only about a week away from Tokyo I was honestly feeling quite stressed. The journey was coming to an end after all of this time and although I was very excited about finishing and reaching my goal, a part of me was also dreading it, my adventure was nearly over.
This last part of my journey was also rather uneventful. It’s funny how we work towards these distant grand goals, journeying to far off imagined destinations, romanticising our arrival, sometimes giving up the present moment to daydreams of future glory. But as you get closer to arriving, you realise the truly special part is the journey. Those moments that in the present may seem a little bland turn out to be incredible when you look back through the rear-view mirror. They are so special, moments you can never have again. Lost in time, now only connections between neurons firing in your brain. If you’re lucky you may have a photo. There seems to be a fine line between enjoying the present, dreaming of achieving your goals and enjoying the memories you’ve created along the way but I think being engaged and in the present is the most important because that is what makes your memories the most vivid and indelible, to be enjoyed and drawn upon whenever you are in need of inspiration. The granularity of each hour of each day, cycling through the dry and humid heat, the cold, the rain and the snow, the blisteringly hot sun and the howling headwinds. It all adds up to make this stunning moving picture, a patchwork of memories that sometimes you can’t believe were actually made by you rather than seen on a screen.
So I slowly made my way towards Tokyo, stalling for time to catch up with all the photos I had taken and try to get my social media accounts up to date using WiFi in convenience stores and other places. A very unglamorous part of travelling but now seemingly an essential part of the modern adventurer, sharing it more in real time rather than in the slower form of books or talks.
In many ways it’s good as it forces you to stop and think about your journey, to become better at documenting it, to consolidate and condense a little of what you have learned and hopefully to inspire others, to show them a different view of the world and what’s possible if you just take that seemingly enormous, yet small leap into the unknown. The downside is that every comment and like will drag your mind back home to the people you know and the places you left, removing you from the experience of travelling, filling your mind with unneeded thoughts and worries. It then takes you a day or two to get back into the mindset of travelling so you can become absorbed again in the time and space of wherever you happen to be.
I would strongly advocate making a rule not to use social media while travelling, to only contact family once every couple of weeks to let them know you’re safe and to only use a smartphone for photos and other forms of documenting your experience, as well as using apps such as Couchsurfing or Warmshowers. They help to greatly enhance to journey.
I had so many experiences in the few hostels I stayed in where everyone was on their phone, me included, our faces illuminated by a screen. I’m sure we were doing something important which would have been impossible 10 years before. I would think to myself ‘10 or 15 years ago everyone in this room would probably be talking, making connections and sharing experiences but instead we’re missing out on that for the triviality of sharing our experiences with people who will forget about our latest post or update in a matter of minutes when they see another one that’s far more interesting.’
This is a very negative view I know but I feel I can’t stress enough the importance of immersion when travelling, which is something social media and the smartphone totally works against, it is absolutely possible to be somewhere in body but not in mind and if you’re going not going to be there in mind then you may as well be at home on the sofa.
Immersion is something I have regularly failed at and accomplished on this journey but when you do immerse yourself in the experience it changes you. You grow each time and learn so much. I feel that even just three months of tough travelling where you’re fully immersed in the experience can furnish you with enough ideas and inspiration to last a lifetime. Added to that, you’ll have the confidence and attitude to pursue them.
So I continued on the final few pages of my journey down towards Mt Fuji, first glimpsing it from a nearby town. It was a moment that had me laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of beholding Japan’s most beloved mountain in my sights after 15 months of travel. Fuji’s sloping sides and snow-capped peak stood stoically 70km south of this unassuming but now memorable location by the side of a Japanese road. It was quite a special moment to see up close, next to Lake Motosu, that iconic image of Japan that everyone knows. The Japan that I had always seen on my Google image searches. Surrounded by five lakes, it stands at 3000m. It’s an active volcano, and – while the last eruption occurred in 1880 – like Mt Vesuvius in Naples it is due for another eruption. It could have disastrous consequences for Tokyo if the wind happens to be blowing in the wrong direction. It would dump millions of tonnes of ash onto the city which would become as heavy as concrete once it got wet. I’ll pray along with the whole of Japan that this doesn’t happen in our lifetimes. The Japanese call the mountain Fijusan, with ‘san’ being the polite addition to a name. It’s like calling it Mr Mt Fuji so as not to anger it. To the Japanese, Fuji embodies the spirit of their country and they both love and fear it in equal measure.
I followed the road on a route around all of Fuji’s lakes before my last sleep at lake Yamanaka before I made my way to Tokyo. I planned to sleep 20km outside of the city to then cycle in on my birthday and arrive in the early afternoon and somehow celebrate. I had no plan for my arrival except to try and absorb my achievement, take some photos. I’d then make my way 35km back out of the city to the home of my host, Shoko, a family friend, in time to have dinner with her and her husband. I wanted to be with people on my birthday and not sleeping rough in the city. So on a well-timed Wednesday morning on my 27th birthday I awoke after a good night’s sleep in the metal tube of a children’s climbing frame in a suburb of Tokyo. I’d become fully feral from 15 months of rough travel.
Packing up my sleeping bag and mat I was approached by an 80-year-old man called Tadou Kobayashi who had been playing tennis. He spoke enough English for us to have a conversation in which I told him about my journey and where I had come from. He then invited me to tea at his home, where I ended up having a breakfast of miso soup with rice, sour plums and green tea. Tadou then played me happy birthday on his violin and gave me a present of dried persimmon fruit. So from there I set off for the centre of Tokyo.
In all honesty, it was quite an anti-climax, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was prepared for it to not be as amazing as I was anticipating after reading accounts of honest adventurers finishing their journeys.
I arrived at the entrance to the Emperor’s palace and was promptly told that bicycles weren’t allowed. So I made my way to Tokyo tower and took some photos there. I then asked some taxi drivers where the best view of the city was and they pointed me in the direction of the rainbow bridge that looks out onto Tokyo with a stunning panoramic view of the city, including Tokyo tower and the 634m Skytree. It was here, on the bridge with the sun setting over the city, the cool breeze blowing my now very long hair all over my face that I finally took a moment to try and absorb it all. Writing this now, I’m a little lost for words, it was a feeling of great accomplishment and elation but also a feeling of loss, the journey was over and now I had to find a new meaning. I had to choose from some of the paths I had imagined on the long and lonely road.
I felt as if my life was a video game and the player had entered a cheat code for bizarre and amazing achievements and this was the one that came out. Nearly two years ago I had the idea, sitting at my desk in my bedroom and tried to push it away because of the fear of the vast great unknown that lay before me but I knew then that I would have to do it.
This was confirmed a few months later while at dinner with a friend and, having second thoughts about my crazy idea, I said to her, “I’m not sure about my idea but if I don’t do it, I’ll always think of myself as a quitter won’t I?”
Looking me directly in the eye, she laughed and just said “yes.”
That was the moment I truly learnt the lesson of committing and taking action to birth an idea into reality. I purchased the Twowheelstotokyo domain name, started buying bits and pieces of equipment, telling friends and family and researching.
Now here I was: standing on Tokyo’s rainbow bridge at sunset, looking at the city with a nearly empty bank account and holding onto the handlebars of a worn out bike, but feeling like the richest man in the world. A head full of life-changing memories, ideas and inspiration that I wouldn’t trade for any amount of money. I feel my view of the people and this planet we live on has expanded massively to reveal to me the slightest sliver of all there is to learn and experience in a lifetime, to illuminate a tiny section of the darkness that is ignorance.