Japan 2018

Shimanami Kaido, Tokyo

With lots of excitement, we set off bright and early for our first day of cycling the Shimanami Kaido (the famous cycling course spanning 6 islands) starting off in the main island and ending in Shikoku. This was one of the main elements of our trip to Japan.

From Hiroshima we caught the Shinkansen to Fukiyama, the closest Shinkansen stop to the start of the cycling course at Onomochi – or so we thought. Strangely, just before we were due to arrive at our destination, we stopped at a station called Shin-Onomochi. Japanese trains make notoriously quick stops, so we didn’t think we had time to jump off – and then we ended up sitting at the station for a couple of minutes with ample time should we had decided to get off. Anyway, we continued onto Fukiyama and then caught a local train back to Onomochi. We’ve noticed many other stations starting with “Shin-” and we believe this to be the “Shinkansen” station within a city if there are more than one train terminal. While planning your trips, it’s worthwhile to see if your city has a Shin station, eg Shin-Osaka.

The total Shimanami Kaido is around 70km in distance following the recommended path. There are intermediate and advanced tracks that incorporate more hills and mountain climbs. We decided to split the ride into two days so we could take in more and absorb the wonderful scenery.

In Onomochi we found the Yamato luggage delivery place with no hassle and organised to have our suitcases sent to our hotel in Okayama the next day. It was our first time using the luggage delivery system and we did leave with some trepidation but also with trust in the efficient Japanese system.

We briefly visited the purpose built Giant store which we had missed securing rental bikes from and then headed to the public bike rental place which still looked to have a number of bikes for hire. We paid our money and went to pick our bikes only to find out that most we had seen were reserved and we had limited choices – maybe 12 to choose from – from city cruises to fold up and electric bikes. We chose the only two cross bikes and headed to the ferry terminal. These public bikes aren’t as well maintained and the gears weren’t accurate but they did the job.

We took the ferry across the water. Luce was in charge of paying for the trip and inadvertently didn’t pay for the bikes but couldn’t understand why the money collector was grumbling in Japanese, but as he didn’t explain or even point to the sign (which she noticed when she got off)… it happened. Michael, oblivious to all of that, was the first one off the ferry.

We headed off on our journey towards Imabari following the blue line specifically painted on the roads for cyclists.

About an hour into our journey, Michael’s rear tyre started to deflate and without a patch kit given to us, we were sure to be in strife. Luckily, Luce had pointed out we should ask when hiring the bikes what we needed to do for this very scenario. All you needed to do for such a situation was call a number and they would handle the rest. A truck came past about 30 minutes later and we were able to select a replacement bike. It wasn’t that much better but it did have two operational tyres and successfully got us all the way.

With her country background, Luce went to inspect the local produce as she was fascinated with the soil they were being grown in. It didn’t appear to be soil but something that resembled more of sand. Some were growing in open air, while others were covered in a tunnel of plastic.

After just over 30km, we arrived at our accomodation at a Japanese style “ryokan” and were greeted with the region’s number 1 selling lemon drink. It was indeed very oishi (yummy). A ryokan normally gives you a room with tatami mats, paper walls, beds and tables low to the ground. Located in Setoda, our accomodation provided special public baths scented with pieces of the region’s famous citrus fruits, lemons. Initially, we weren’t sure how our sunburnt skin was going to go with the acidity from the lemons but the onsen seemed to work well.

The view from our room at sunset

In Japan, onsens are separate for males and females and you must wash yourself in the shower area before using the public bath. They provide soap, shampoo, a bucket, seat and shower head for you to do this. You sit down so you do not cause any unnecessary splashes to fellow bathers. Once done, you can head over to the onsen making sure not to create too much disruption to others. Also, you are given a small hand towel to assist with the drying, otherwise this is all done while you’re totally naked. Luce quite enjoyed her time as she had mostly a private experience while lucky Michael shared his with three other men.

The next morning, we set off to complete the ride. The views were even more stunning.

Photos cannot accurately depict the breathtaking scenery, the stillness and tranquility of the surroundings. It is evident through our journey that the Japanese people have strong respect for nature.

The final bridge: Kurushima Bridge

Michael’s cold had abated by the start of the cycle trip and things were looking up again for the both of us. We completed the ride feeling great but later Luce, with her stellar introduction to Japan, finally succumbed to Michael’s cold and didn’t shake it until we were in Hakone (after Tokyo).

Once we reached the heart of Imabari, we handed our bikes over and headed to the JR station to board our shinkansen to Okayama via the scenic route over Shikoku island. We nervously headed towards Hotel Granvia, which we selected because it was easily accessible and connected to the station, and were relieved to find our suitcases waiting for us in our room. This would be the most luxurious stay of our trip – it was a 4 star hotel and cost under $200 for the night. We were also at our best – hot and sweaty from our day in the sun.

We attempted to find a meal similar to the mazemen noodles we had in Hiroshima, but couldn’t. It was still ok.

Tokyo

The next day the skies opened up on our shinkansen from Okayama to Tokyo so we weren’t fortunate enough to get a good view of Mt Fuji. At this point, we were hopeful that we would capture the best photos of Mt Fuji with our stay in picturesque Hakone.

The following morning, we embarked on a Tokyo cycling tour by Gaku – a local professional mountain biker who is very nice and so humble. He took our group of 5 on a 6 hour journey to visit the main landmarks around Tokyo mostly on roads. Lucky for us, we were doing the tour on one of the public holidays within Golden Week so fewer vehicles were on the road. It was a very fun and informative tour and we highly recommend doing it as your first activity when visiting Tokyo.

The tour included stops at famous Tokyo sights including Meiji shrine and the Tokyo Government Office building – the later of which has the most amazing view of Tokyo including Mt Fuji on a fine day. As it was a little bit overcast, Fujisan was still hiding behind the clouds – but that’s okay, we still had Hakone to come.

While in Tokyo we stayed in Shimokitazawa, an area described as bohemian with its young, hip and out there styles with many small shops and cafes seating less than 10. Michael calls it the Braddon of Canberra. Having consumed mostly Starbucks coffees in our trip thus far, we discovered a small coffee shop started by a couple from Melbourne a couple of years back. In true Melbournian fashion, it was definitely strong but we did get to enjoy it with banana bread. While in the area, we found giant apples, watermelons priced at 1380 yen (around $15AUD), and 1 litre of Jack Daniels for about the same cost as the watermelon. Alcohol is very cheap and easily accessible.

We decided to visit Asakusa, which according to the guidebook was a highlight of Tokyo. We watched a couple a youtube videos before the visit to give an idea of what to see. Much to our disappointment, the videos hadn’t shown how busy Asakusa would be. Looking back, we should have known better than visit one of the main sites on a weekend during Golden Week.

We arrived at Asakusa and were immediately inundated with tourists. There were so many, it was hard to even walk in a straight line. We attempted to eat our way up the street leading to Sensoji (the main Buddist temple at Asakusa) as the street food is renowned in this area. Unfortunately even the food couldn’t make up for the crowds. Michael, over the tourists and the heat, was keen to leave the area as soon as possible and head for the giant golden flame (or golden turd as a youtuber said the locals called it).

To outsiders, Tokyo does have some strange attractions: be it the cat or owl cafes where you hand over your yen and go pat your animal of choice; maid cafes where you enjoy a meal while you entertained by young looking girls dressed in maid costumes; or love hotels where you can book in blocks of a few hours for a quick layover, or an overnight romantic stay for the more serious kind – why not treat your loved one to the dungeon experience?

Michael somehow convinced Luce to attend a-never-to-be-found-outside-Japan unique cabaret experience while in Tokyo. Yes, that’s right, we went and saw the attraction that put Tokyo back on the world stage, Robot Restaurant! We’re not sure how to accurately describe our experience with the utmost respect it deserves. We witnessed three acts with the first being a robot battle between good and bad forces with some drumming; next was a ninja laser show and robots dancing to modern English songs; and finally a mashup dance mix to more pop songs. As long as you go with no expectation (which we did), you will find it entertaining (if not quite extraordinary!).

 

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