Urban Japan

We have already left Japan, so this post is a throwback to our days in the Japanese cities, finishing in the biggest of them all: Tokyo.

A little bit over a month ago we arrived in Tokyo, a city of 32 million people and our final destination. We were a bit daunted by the mindboggling size and influenced by films like Bladerunner, Akira and Ghost in the Shell we were expecting a mad, hectic, sleazy and noisy monster of a place. In fact, it is quite a relaxed place and on our first day we cycle more than 30kms around Tokyo. We did have some preparation for the biggest city of them all though.

Kon’ichiwa Tokyo

Urban Japan

As pleasantly surprised as we are about the easy access to so much beautiful nature in Japan, it is difficult to cycle around the country without crossing some urban areas every now and again. On Kyushu and Shikoku the cities are not very large and quite relaxed. At first sight they are quite beige, but there are always some interesting places to visit such as a museum, a park or a shrine. There are still many houses in classical Japanese style with a carefully manicured garden to match.

When we start cycling towards Kyoto after our days on the Naoshima art island we opt for making some distance.  We cycled for a couple of days in seemingly never-ending suburbs, mostly existing of American-style strip building lined with chain restaurants and shopping malls along a busy highway. In more central city neighbourhoods we share the pavement with the cycling morning commuters: mothers with children, businessmen in suits and kids going to school. We love how bike friendly Japan is, and that it is a perfectly normal way of getting around for many people. The busy roads are not too bad since the traffic is slow and there is usually some sort of bike lane. When we veer off the main road we still find peaceful camping spots, one even right in the middle of Osaka in a small neighbourhood park.

Cycling into the cities has its perks too. We can add some variation to the daily convenience store bento box diet and we sample our first okonomiyaki, the Japanese answer to the Dutch kapsalon. It is a pile of noodles, egg, seafood or meat, fried on a hot plate and doused in sauces. Cheap, filling and tasty.

Kobe

Our first bigger city is Kobe. We arrive in the evening with a ferry from Naoshima and marvel at the wide boulevards, the highrise and the gleaming lights of some serious starchitecture such as the memorial for the 1995 earthquake. This magnitude 7 earthquake was the worst in Japan in the 20th century. It destroyed every building in the city that was built before the strict building laws of 1981 came into effect. The city and the harbour were severely damaged and the disaster cost more than 6000 lives. On the positive side, it resulted in a large volunteer effort with people from all over the country coming out to help, and the date of the earthquake is now national volunteer day. The city was quickly rebuilt and today it is a lively place with no immediate traces of the disaster. In Kobe we only spend one night, but we are lucky: our Amsterdam friend Enno has linked us with his friend Hiro and we are invited to stay with Hiro at his mother’s house.

Tatami room for two meets Ortlieb bags

The house is traditional Japanese, with tatami on the floor, sliding doors and calligraphy and ikebana arrangements in our room. The house where Hiro grew up was destroyed in the quake but rebuilt on the same spot. Hiro’s mum cooks us a fantastic meal and we have a great evening drinking beer and talking. We have one dish which consists of tiny raw squid. They are drowned in vats of soy sauce when they are caught so they are almost black, suffused with the salty sauce. Very cruel but also very tasty.

Osaka

From Kobe we cycle to Osaka in one day. Here we spend only one full day. It is a pretty modern city with shopping and clubbing as its main attractions. Not really our thing, but the city has a nice vibe and we are slowly starting to get excited about the big city buzz again.

Osaka welcome at Rapha

In Osaka we meet more cycling friends when we visit the Rapha Cycle Club. We are completely blown away by the warm welcome they have prepared for us: there are Oufti banners and photos and we have a great afternoon chatting with road racers who can’t believe how freaking heavy our fully loaded bikes are.

Kyoto

From Osaka we follow a traffic-free bike path along the river all the way into Kyoto, where we stay for a few days. My friend Roosmarijn Pallandt has an exhibition at the Kyotographie photo biennale and we spend a couple of days helping her out. It is decidedly weird to be back into my old line of cultural production work again after a year on the road. Her work hangs in a beautiful old house, formerly a kimono makers place, now a chique tea house and exhibition space.

The opening of the exhibition features a performance by an Ikebana artist. Ikebana is one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement that were developed in the 7th century and closely linked to Zen Buddhism. The art of flower arrangement, the tea ceremony and the art of incense appreciation all originated from temple rituals but developed into independent art forms. We are all sitting on the tatami floor in one of the larger rooms which opens onto the inner courtyard garden with sliding doors. The master is an older man who speaks very engagingly to the audience, before gracefully placing a single branch in a wicker container. This description of the performance doesn’t do any justice to the ritual of Japanese flower arrangement. The atmosphere is cerebral, and I have never seen an audience so rapt. The man disappears with the container through a sliding door. We hold our breath. Then, the paper doors at the end of the room slide open to show us the completed piece, with the garden as a backdrop. There is some time for contemplation and the master appears again, to a round of applause.

Geisha

Kyoto is one of the tourist highlights of Japan, and the first temple we visit we are surrounded by throngs of tourists. This is a small shock to the system after weeks of not seeing all that many foreigners. Many tourists dress up in garish geisha outfits which makes for nice people watching and a colourful addition to the historical sights.

Kyoto Geisha

Throughout the city there are still many traditional houses and one evening we glimpse a real geisha emerging from a private function in one of these houses. There are still about 2.000 real geisha working in Japan, but today they start their training after they finish high school, and not at the age of four as was customary. Geisha are highly skilled and independent businesswomen and not prostitutes as is a common conception in the West. The word geisha litterly translates as artist: gei = art sha = person. Traditionally it was a way to be financially independent without having to marry.

We like Kyoto but we find it difficult to be indoors instead of camping, so we are happy to cycle out of the city and into the green Kii Peninsula (see the latest blog post).

Tokyo

From the Kii peninsula we take a ferry to Tokushima, and from there an overnight boat to Tokyo. This ferry is mostly a cargo boat with only one floor for passengers and simple but very comfortable capsule cabins. There is no restaurant, only vending machines and microwaves. But, there is an onsen on board which is a huge bonus. It is strange to slosh around in a pool on board of a ship that is rocked by the waves. In the morning I watch Tokyo glide into view while floating in the hot pool with huge windows overlooking the sea.

We are too early for our Airbnb appartment so we do a recce of Tokyo with our fully loaded bikes. Our first stop is the small but exquisite temple for the god of strong legs. We could not have found a more fitting location to end our journey. We say a little prayer and leave a wooden plaque with a wish for more travel in good health, and gratitude for the trip we made.

Tokyo is easy to cycle around in, and over the next couple of days we do some sightseeing, in search of Japanese metabolist and brutalist architecture and exciting subcultures. The first we find in abundance; either from the top of the 45th-floor viewing platform in the Tokyo City Hall offices (designed by Kenzo Tange) or glimpses of small and smartly designed townhouses on street level. These concrete houses look somewhat grim and austere on the outside but imply a simple and beautiful Japanese interior, just like Tadao Ando’s designs.
I come down with a severe stomach bug so never have a chance to dive into Tokyo’s nightlife. Our apartment is supposedly in the heart of Japanese youth culture but the gothic lolita girls we met when we came out of Fukuoka airport are in the end the only ones we see on this trip. The people in Tokyo look mostly very normal and we are a little bit disappointed. A place that absolutely doesn’t disappoint is Tokyo’s National Museum, a treasure trove of historical artefacts. We can now link the certain historical periods to places that we have visited, which makes the artworks really come to life. There are amazing ink paintings, samurai swords, sculpture and other temple treasures. A must-visit when you come to Tokyo.

Another interesting outing we make is to the nearby academic hospital to find a diagnosis and treatment for my funky tummy. We marvel at the quiet professionalism and without any preferential treatment because of our skin colour we get to meet a doctor who runs all kinds of insanely expensive tests (thank you travel insurance!). He gets quite excited when he hears about our previous Central Asia stomach troubles. All kinds of parasites he has never before encountered in his practice. So, I will have to come back to Tokyo, because I spent most of the time here in bed, recovering and hoping I will be well enough in time to get on my flight to China.

Cyril leaves Tokyo for two days to participate in the Eroica Japan ride. The event is close to Mount Fuji but the mountain is feeling shy that day and hiding behind the clouds. Still, he has a nice day out riding with some interesting characters, other cyclists who love vintage bikes and gear. This being Japan many of them are dressed to the nines on perfectly restored vintage steel bikes.

Goodby Oufti!

And then, it is time to pack up the bikes. We are flying on the same day from Narita airport. Me to Chengdu, from where I will take a train to my new home in Kunming. Cyril will fly to Korea, where he will cycle for two weeks before flying to Rome and cycling back home. We have a relatively hassle-free trip to the airport and before we know it it is time to say our goodbyes. Cyril flies first, so I wave him through the security check. A long last hug and some tears, equally sad and happy. Sad because we are saying goodbye after a year of travel and three and a half years together. But happy with everything we have accomplished together and our friendship intact despite breaking up. On to new adventures.

In a couple of months, when Cyril is back in Amsterdam, we’ll post a throwback blog post to share our thoughts and feelings about this trip after returning to a more or less normal life. In the meantime I will start writing for a new blog. More about that later.  Right now I am quite busy settling into my new life in China, which is going rather well. I like my job, I have a challenging art project ahead, I’m meeting nice people, I have the headspace and stable internet connection to catch up with friends and family back home, I’m studying Chinese and I enjoy the creature comforts of having a lovely house surrounded by lush green, with a washing machine and a bathtub. For now, I don’t miss the cycling much, but I’m happy with the thought that I can pack up my panniers anytime and hit the road again. For now China is my challenge and I love it.

Thank you for traveling with us. Oufti!

3 thoughts on “Urban Japan”

  1. Thank you both so much for having us avid readers take part in your amazing trip. Continue your adventure, enjoy life and take care. All the very best, Patrick

  2. Vera en Cyril, ik wens jullie allebei heel veel geluk en succes in jullie verdere leven. Het afgelopen jaar gaat jullie daar ongetwijfeld bij helpen, die ervaring pakken ze jullie niet meer af. Ik blijf graag op de hoogte over hoe het verder met jullie gaat. Cheers.

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