Art and island life

Cycling Shikoku’s coast

Shikoku is the smallest of Japans four main islands, and mostly known for its 88 temple pilgrimage route. After taking a morning ferry from Beppu we arrive in Yawatahama on Shikoku in the afternoon and start cycling North. We follow a blue line on the tarmac that leads us to the famous Shimanamikaido. This is a bike route that hops with some long suspension bridges across several islands, from Shikoku to the main island Honshu.

Shikoku coastal cruising
Shikoku coastal cruising

The weather for the next fews days is quite bad, but on our first night it is still dry. After a glorious day along a beautiful sunny coastal road we set up camp at yet another peaceful shinto shrine, in the densely populated area of Matsuyama. Where we are it is quiet, and we are surrounded by orange groves. In the evening a sudden storm shakes our tent. After putting in all the pegs we feel safe and secure and sleep right through the rest of the storm.

Another day of cycling along a busy road in quite heavy rain brings us to Imabari. This a small harbour town and the start of the Shimanamikaido. After missing out on seeing the Aso volcano because of rain and mist we decide to wait out the bad weather in lovely bicycle traveler hostel in Imabari, so we can enjoy the islands in better weather. Cyclo No Ie has typical Japanese capsule rooms that feel more like a kids favourite hiding space than an actual room. It is a very cozy and warm place and we love the bicycle vibe throughout. This is also our first actual rest day since we landed so there is no shame in being lazy while it pours outside. We enjoy an evening of conversation with some really nice fellow travellers. We even celebrate Pesach together, drinking wine with an Israeli couple. Lechaim!

Island hopping along the Shimanamikaido

We are glad we waited for the rain to pass, as the day after is gloriously sunny and we set off in an excellent mood. The Shimanamikaido route from Imabari on Shikoku to Onomichi on Honshu is only about 75km, so we decide to take some detours and savour the islands for a day or two. After this we will get to more densely populated urban areas so we want to enjoy the peace and quiet as long as possible. The suspension bridges are spectacular, offering stunning views on the sea and the islands below. On Oshima island we follow the Northern “island explorer” loop and find some sleepy little fisherman villages along a road with almost zero traffic. Bliss! It is nice to see many other cyclists out and about. We see young people racing, old people doing a gentle exercise round, lots of Japanese tourists and families with kids. No other bike tourers unfortunately but still, we love seeing this amazing bicycle infrastructure being used so enthusiastically.

 

Skipping across to Hakatajima and another bridge takes us to Onoshima. Here we visit a small museum designed by Toyo Ito, with a great exhibition about his involvement in regenerating the island. As is the case in most of rural Japan the islands population was shrinking. Most young people head to the cities and only elderly residents and fishermen stay behind. On Onoshima however efforts are made to turn the tide. Architects and islanders are starting projects that will attract more visitors while respecting and preserving the traditional ways of life on the island. We read stories from the original islanders about life in the last century, telling tales of swimming in the strong currents between the islands and underwater fighting with an octopus. When we have a chat with a man who offers us a drink from one of the many roadside vending machines we get the impression that people are happy and proud to be from this beautiful and special corner of Japan. When the sun starts to set we find another serene hilltop shrine to camp for the night.

On our second shimanamikaido day we cross to Ikuchijima island and visit the Ikuo Hirayama museum. Hirayama was a Hiroshima nuclear bomb survivor and a master of the traditional Japanese Nihonga school of drawing and painting. He expresses himself in clear pen strokes and water colours. His work focuses on promoting peace and tracing the origins of Buddhism, and to that end he traveled along the silk road. We are happy to discover paintings of places that we have also visited in Iran, China and Thailand. One of the great joys of this trip has been about how cultures, ideas and people freely cross borders and exchange inspiration, often resulting in beautiful artefacts. These sublime drawings are just one example.

Two more islands and we are on mainland Honshu. We don’t stop in Onomichi which is a shame because it seems a really lovely little town, with lots of little cafe’s, galleries and restaurants. Instead we barrel along a busy highway, trying to make as many kilometres as possible. It is still sunny and we have the wind in our back and music in our ears, so we do more than 100km before we set up camp next to a small graveyard in a hilltop village, just off the highway but a world away from the chain restaurants, gas stations and endless stream of cars.

We loved every kilometre of the Shimanamikaido. The whole route we had separate bike lines, bike minded people and places, beautiful scenery and interesting places to visit. We can’t recommend it highly enough for every cyclist who plans to visit Japan.

Naoshima: art and island life

Since we covered so much distance we only have to cycle 40km more the day after. From the port of Uno we hop across to Naoshima, an island famous for its many modern art installations and museums. On the ferry we are all of a sudden surrounded by pasty white artsy hipsters, and we feel once again like scruffy outsiders, even though this was my peer group back home in Amsterdam. Naoshima is a small island, only about 2km by 4km, and half of it is designated to the art and museums. There are some guest houses and a couple of restaurants but the two small villages on the island are still very much like traditional fishing villages, which makes for a nice vibe.

Since we arrive quite early we have a good half day of exploring the land art and installations. We visit six renovated traditional village houses with art installations and a museum dedicated to the work of Lee Ufan. All the museums on the island are designed by Tadao Ando, meaning the buildings (often half underground) subtly blend with the landscape and provide a tailored setting for the exhibited art works. There is a small Tadao Ando museum as well, with a gorgeous concrete model of his famous Osaka church. The unofficial symbol of the island is one of Yayoi Kusama‘s dotted pumpkins, placed on a small jetty. The Benesse corporation is the initiator of the art boom on Naoshima, by opening a hotel/gallery in the late eighties. Over the years other museums and art sites opened and Naoshima became some sort of pilgrimage site for modern art lovers.

As we spend the afternoon cycling around the art works we have a hard time deciding on where to camp, as there are so many beautiful beaches. We even consider another one of Kusama’s pumpkins as a possible sleeping place, until we decide on the site of the former Naoshima castle. On the top of a hill overlooking the sea we set up our tent under billowing and gently snowing clouds of sakura. 

We cycle around one more day and wind down in the afternoon. There is a bath house that has been designed by an artist and I soak in the extravagantly and erotically tiled hot tub, being supervised by an elephant and dreaming away with Brian Eno soundscapes. We have dinner in a sweet little restaurant with a Dutch couple who travel around Japan in the tiniest camper we have ever seen. When the restaurant owners hear about our year long cycling adventure they give us two beautiful handmade coasters. They are decorated with their signature dish: a strange little sea creature that looks and tastes like a cross between a turtle’s paw and a sea anemone.

Today we cross the Seto inland sea with two ferry rides, from Naoshima via Takamatsu at Shikoku back to mainland Honshu. As we get closer to Tokyo we will enter our first big Japanese cities: Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto. Right now we are still relaxed and dreamy, having spent a couple of lovely days on a very special art island.

 

Iranian extremism

Salaam, khoobi, everything good, everything allright? This is the standard Persian greeting. Lots of people greet us this way an stop us in the street for a chat. Often they ask us to tell our friends and family back home that they are not terrorists or extremists. So, read on for more impressions of Iran, the Iranians and their extremism.

In the last two weeks we have visited some of the highlights of Iran. We have also squeezed in a couple of ‘off the beaten track’ experiences. A personal highlight was hanging out with Arie and Gerben, two friends from Amsterdam who came to visit us. We have only just waved them goodbye after having traveled together for almost two weeks.

Leaving Kashan

Kashan was one of our favourite places in Iran. Large and touristy enough to offer ease and comfort, small enough to have a very laid back villagy atmosphere and little hassle.

The only thing we were quite disappointed with was a tour we took with Hosein ‘I’m in the Lonely Planet’ Moznebi. His business is not online, I cannot leave a review anywhere so I will do it here as a courtesy to other travelers. Apologies for the following moan!

Touring the desert

Hosein is a very nice guy who speaks great English. He found us in one of the traditional restaurants. He offers tours of the Kashan surroundings and we decided to take a two day tour that would take us from Kashan to our next destination Esfahan, with an overnight stay in a desert caravanserai. The tour included a visit to a mud fort, a salt lake and desert sand dunes, an underground city, a beautiful mosque in the city of Natanz and a visit to the mountain village of Abyaneh.

The price was supposedly all inclusive but unfortunately confusion and vagueries ensued and we had to fork out quite a bit more: the entrance price to the underground city and the mosque, the toll price to the village of Abyaneh, the lunch of our driver. We didn’t appreciate being treated like a stupid walking bag of money, expected to hand out cash at every opportunity. Now if this expected generosity from our side was met with an exceptional tour it wouldn’t be so bad.

Alas.. We had an English speaking tourguide with us but unfortunately he only offered a talk at the underground city stop. For every following part of the tour we were being driven around by different non-English speaking drivers without any further explanation or information. So, all in all an underwhelming experience which I cannot recommend to fellow travelers. End of moan.

We did meet three really nice Italian guys on this tour, we kept bumping into them in the next following days as a lot of people do the same circuit of Irans most famous cities.

Esfahan

In Esfahan we met up with our friends from Amsterdam. We greatly enjoyed strolling around the famous square and visiting the stunning mosques. Esfahan has a laid back, friendly and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Great coffee houses, a bazaar where craftsmen are hammering out silverware and copper pots. It’s hard to explain exactly what was so wonderful about Esfahan, in this case sounds might speak more than typed words: craftsmen at work and a tourguide who sang for us to demonstrate the wonderful acoustics of Masjed-e-jameh mosque.

Desert home

On our way to the desert town of Yazd we stopped over for one night in a delightful homestay in Toudeshk village. Our host Mohammad has been a longtime host of bicycle travelers before he started a guesthouse. He tells us that when he was a kid he used to stop bus drivers and trucks to ask if they had seen any cyclists. This so he could ‘catch’ them on their way through and invite them to his home. Now he runs a beautifully renovated traditional adobe home with elegant rooms around a peaceful courtyard. His mum is a great cook and it is nice to hang out with the family. This is the first place where I am invited to take off my headscarf, one more reason to love this place. It feels as if life in the desert is a little bit more free, far away from the prying eyes of government and nosy neighbours.

Yazd

Approaching Yazd it is hard to see what is so special about it. We enter a busy city with the same mad traffic as in any other Iranian city. Just behind the shops on the busy Emam road however lies the adobe-built old town of Yazd, where we settle into another lovely traditional guesthouse. Kohan house is one of our favourites because of the flowers surrounding the courtyard pool, the friendly and professional staff and the quiet classical Iranian music tinkling in the background.

The next couple of days we spend aimlessly wandering around the quiet and narrow streets of the old town. Since all the houses are built of adobe there are no hard or straight lines but instead the flowing organic shapes of rounded walls, domed roofs, the typical wind towers and vaulted walkways, everything in the same muted mud colour that glow beautifully in the evening sun. There are no distractions such as advertising signs, just the occasional ‘hello!’ from a neighbourhood kid cycling by. The overall effect is incredibly relaxing. There are a few rooftop cafes where we see the sun go down while listening to the crackling lo-fi call to prayer of the Masjed-e-Jameh mosque.

Visum stuff

Since Cyril and I are staying in Iran longer than our 30 day visum allows we have to organize a visum extension. We decide to do this in Yazd as some reports indicate that the office in Shiraz is too busy with immigrant workers to cater to tourists. A good decision. The whole process in Yazd takes only about an hour, most of it spent having a great conversation with the officer who is handling our application. He asks about our tax system and offers his opinion on Iranian traffic police. He is overall super friendly and interested. We are very aware of the luxury of our white Western privilige when we are ushered in past the growing queue of poor Afghan immigrants who are waiting for their work permits.

House of Strength

We spend our last evening in Yazd with a visit to the Zurkhaneh or House of Strength. We heard about this before but were a bit puzzled. Why should we visit a local gym to see men working out? The zurkhaneh turns out to be an incredible experience and a lot more than just a workout. The one in Yazd is housed in an underground water reservoir with four wind towers, just off Amir Chakmagh square. We walk in when a session is in full swing.

A small group of boys and men, dressed in embroidered knee-long tight shorts, are in a circular pit in the middle of the room. They are rhythmically swinging huge wooden weights over their shoulders in time to the drumbeats, chimes and chants of a man seated on a platform overlooking the pit. All around the room there are pictures and parafernalia of former champions. Apart from the wooden weights there are also iron bows with ringing chimes, to be hoisted over the head and swung from left to right in time with the drum beat. The practitioners take turns to whirl like dervishes, spinning with outstretched arms in the middle of the pit. The chanting, the drumming, the rhythmic movements, all of it is hypnotizing.

Spiritual practice

I read up a little bit about the practice and find out it is closely linked to different religious movements over the millenia: Zoroastrians practiced it, later on sufi and shi’ite religious elements were added. It is therefor a lot more than just a physical work-out: it is a spiritual warrior practice. It was in decline under the rule of the shah (who didn’t like this old fashioned practice in his quest for modernizing Iran) and imam Khomeini (who didn’t like the pagan pre-Islamic elements Lately there has been a rise in popularity as it represents nationalism and a pride of Iranian culture.

Shiraz

Persepolis

We meet up with our Amsterdam friends again in Shiraz and visit the incredible archeological site of Persepolis (Iranian name: Takht-e-Jamshid). Much has been written about Persepolis and it is truly magnificent, especially the finely sculptured walls, depicting the kings subjects bringing him wine and food from every corner of his empire.

Camping with the Shah

Next to Persepolis is another interesting place that is not as well known. In 1972 the shah invited most world leaders to a lavish camping trip. He erected a huge tent camp next to Persepolis and feted the invited heads of state in a gigantic PR stunt that won him much acclaim abroad. Unfortunately for the shah the people of Iran were less impressed with his inordinate spending and all that is left now are the skeletons of the tents. I appreciate the idea of a camping trip for world leaders, especially in this land where the people love to camp and picnic with a passion. There is unfortunately also a faint association with the traveling tent camp embassy of Ghadaffi, not quite as innocent as the Iranian families we see camping in the parks and next to the highways of Iran.

Shrines and mosques

Apart from our visit to Persepolis we find it difficult to fall in love with Shiraz. It is a busy, congested city and its most important tourist destination is a shrine that appears rather kitsch to our modernist Western eyes. The Shahecheragh shrine is an important pilgrimage site for Iranians and we get some interesting insights by doing a short tour with one of the International Affairs tourguides associated with the shrine.

We find out that mosques are generally more understated in their design since they are meant for prayer, but shrines can go all-out in decoration since they are meant to honour the imam that is buried there. The Shahecheragh is a riot of mirrored muqarna, shooting light and colours off the gigantic crystal chandeliers like a decadent disco. People are walking up to the shrine, rubbing and kissing walls, praying for good luck. As in all the mosques we have visited the spaces surrounding the actual shrine feel like welcoming community places where people can walk in at all times of day or night, to pray, to talk, to sleep, to meet up, to let the kids play, to read and to contemplate. We really like this strong communal aspect of Islam even if we don’t like the separation of men and women.

New friends in Jahrom

When we were in Armenia we met Ali and his wife Neda in our Yerevan hostel. They live in a small town some 200km South of Shiraz. After our Dutch friends have left we travel down to visit. Unfortunately Neda is away but Ali turns out to be a great host and we find we have made a new friend. Jahrom is an unassuming little town and we enjoy being the only tourists in town, experiencing the Iranian way of life. Ali takes us to a huge man-made cave, on a short hike to another cave overlooking the town and a date-palm garden. We visit the mosque for midday prayer and are greeted by stunned worshippers. They are quick to embrace their foreign visitors. We love talking about our different ways of life with Ali and his friend Reza and we hope we will meet them again sometime.

Iranian extremism

Since we have some very challenging months ahead in the autumn and winter of Tajikistan, Kyrgystan and China we decide to go back to Yazd to enjoy the slow pace of life in this desert town. We are back in Kohan house and are trying to meet up with some locals via couchsurfing. A few more days before we travel to Tehran. A few more days before we have to start packing for our flight to Dushanbe.

Iran has been an incredible experience. I’m glad we got to step off the beaten track and see glimpses of everyday life by meeting up with many lovely people. For us Iranians are indeed extremists. Extremely hospitable, generous and friendly people. We aspire to be similarly good hosts when we return to Amsterdam.

Austria: Grüss Gotti Österreich

Our brief stay in Austria was one of many contrasts. The elections dominate the news: right wing got into power, yet we see a lot of grafiti welcoming refugees and we talk to kind and intelligent hosts who share this welcoming view. People overall were really nice and sometimes come up to us for a chat.

We visited the Melk monastery and the Mauthausen concentration camp. Both are places of contemplation; Stift Melk overwhelms the senses with Catholic baroque opulence. We find a beautiful quote from Corinthians that speaks to us:

Corinthians quote

Since we are both atheists we don’t pay too much attention to the god bit. It is mostly older Americans and Asian people who visit Stift Melk when they are doing a river cruise along the Donau so we are the odd ones out with our heavy loaded bikes and tight lycra.

Stift Melk
Stift Melk

The solemn Camp Mauthausen is unexpectedly beautiful as it is located on top of a steep granite outcrop overlooking the Donau and the flood plains. The sunlight and noisy visiting school kids make the memory of the violence that happened here all the more incomprehensible. We never looked at the peaceful countryside and lovely people quite the same way again.

Entrance to KZ Mauthausen
Entrance to KZ Mauthausen

Linz and Krems were nice stopovers along the Donau; pretty old towns, well respected modern cultural institutions which create a nice vibe, great ice cream and beer (very important).

Vienna is also a city of contrasts. It is huge compared to the size of the country and the other cities: as it was once the capital of the much larger Austro-Hungarian empire it holds 1,7 million inhabitants. This makes it by far the largetst city of Austria which only has 8,5 million inhabitants. By comparison Graz, the second largest city, has only 270.000 inhabitants. The Austrians sometimes call their capital ‘wasserkopf’ because of this. It is a relaxed place, safe and clean and easy to get around. We visited the Schonbrunn palace gardens (home of Sissi) but were touched by the Rotes Wien legacy of social housing, especially the Karl Marx Hof by Karl Ehn. I visited this hof before as part of an architectural history excursion during my studies and am happy to see a social housing project working out really well and still going strong almost a hundred years after it was built. My socialist heart skips a beat when I think of Rotes Wien and I hope our hypercapitalist days will be behind us soon.

Questions about Brutalist architecture I find en route arise, and today I will visit Wotruba church. How does the sober concrete architecture compute with Catholicism?

Wotruba Kirche - Picture by Wolf Leeb
Wotruba Kirche – Picture by Wolf Leeb

Austria: the skinny

8 days. Sunday 8 May 2016 to Sunday 15 May.

Weather: sunny but strong headwinds all the way. Warm and sunny until we ran into clouds and rain from Krems until Vienna. Nowhere near as torrential as was predicted though.

Route: The Donau in Austria is equally well signposted and largely traffic free. The Donau narrows to a beautiful winding gorge around Schlössing (the ´Schlösinger Schlinge´ but then flattens out to a bit more boring and very windy landscape until Linz. Linz and Krems are lovely towns and we took some time to visit Stift Melk, a beautiful Baroque monastery.

We met some more great people through warmshowers when we stayed with Daniel and Vesela in Linz, and caught up with our own last warmshowers guest. Mehmet managed to show up twice just as we were about to make our ´second breakfast´ espresso by the roadside, impeccable timing! It was great to see him again but this time on the road, with more experience, confidence and joy. We might run into him again as he is also on his way to Turkey.

Etappes

Passau – Linz 92km. WS with Daniel and Velena

Linz – Teuch 77km. Wild camp between road and Donau.

Teuch – Krems 73km. Cyclists hostel: heavy rain predicted.

Krems – Vienna 82km. Friend Marianne´s house for 4 nights.

Vienna – Bratislava 70km.

Total distance cycled in Austria: 400km

Budget, acommodation and food

1 warmshowers, 1 hostel, 1 wild camp, 4 nights in the house of a friend.

Total cost accomodation; 37 euro. Average per night per person: 2,50 euro.

Total cost food: to be updated, but quite a bit more than Germany. Austria is quite expensive and we enjoyed some of the big city offerings while we were repacking and waiting for the rain to pass: a Wiener melange, a lunch in lovely bicycle cafe Velobis. We still did some of our own cooking by the tent and in Marianne´s appartment. Average per day per person: about 10 euro?

We spent about 30 euro on visits to cultural sites: Stift Melk and concentration camp Mauthausen. We can highly recommended both.