Shinto by the sea

After our first taste of urban life (Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto: more about this in a later blog) we venture back into the wild. Our original plan was to bus from Kyoto to Hokkaido, but we’re a bit daunted by the idea of two consecutive night bus trips and reports of wet snow in Hokkaido. Thus we decide to circle clockwise from Kyoto and head south again, visiting the lightly populated Kii peninsula. This area has a mountainous interior covered in forests, a gorgeous craggy coastline and it holds the beating hearts of Japans Shinto, Shugendo and Buddhist Shingon religions. We do plenty of climbing meters in our two weeks here, making this a great alternative to the Japanese alps. We considered going there but it is still snowy at altitude and some roads are closed for cycling. We are very happy with our route around the Kii peninsula.

Torii
Torii

Going feral

From Kyoto we follow a bicycle path along a river dyke towards Nara. The weather is just perfect and we start wild camping right away. We realize we have definitely become a bit wilder over the last year. We enjoyed the creature comforts of our Kyoto apartments, but we weren’t super happy sleeping inside, especially set off against the exorbitant costs. Why pay 50 euro for an apartment if you can camp for free almost everywhere? Staying indoors makes us restless and cranky, we miss the space and fresh air so much.

Bamboo forest camping
Bamboo forest camping

Our first night out camping after Kyoto is nothing special but the following nights we find the most stunning spots, one in a bamboo forest, one in a river bed, a few times by the sea, as per usual sometimes next to a shrine and a couple of nights we treat ourself to a camp fire. In Shirahama we stay in a gazebo overlooking the sea, next to a shrine, and we are caught by the neighbours who come around for an early evening stroll. They are curious and friendly and later on they come by again with ice cream and raisin buns for us.

Best camping spot ever
Best camping spot ever

One night we spend on a real camp site, a special experience.

Camp fire on the beach
Camp fire on the beach

In the morning of our last night of stealth camping we are surprised by a troupe of monkeys. We had set up camp on a little abandoned road next to a tunnel and we were obviously obstructing them on their way to breakfast. The monkeys moved around us one by one, clambering over the rock fence and swinging through the trees behind our tent ever so slowly and carefully and just as curious about us as we were about them.

River bed camping
River bed camping

Other nights we have heard wild boar foraging and we spotted some deer in the mountains. Near Koyasan we saw signs warning about black Asian bears but we never saw or heard them. We are amazed at how easy it is to go from urban Japan to pretty wild nature, sometimes it only takes 100m away from the highway to be in complete silence and surrounded by wild animals and early morning bird song.

First cultural highlight: Nara

For a short while Nara was the capital before Kyoto took over for the next 1000 years. The historical part of Nara is laid out in a delightful park filled with tame deer, little restaurants and the most amazing shrines. One of the largest wooden buildings in the world can be found here.

Toda-ji
Toda-ji

Todai-Ji is indeed vast, but it is a well proportioned building and rather than intimidate it invites the visitor to step inside under the beautifully crafted rafters. We are just in time before the busloads of tourists arrive so we enjoy the feel of the building in relative peace and quiet. It is not just the building that is awe-inspiring. Inside is a daibutsu, or giant seated bronze Buddha, again one of the largest in the world.

Despite being a place of superlatives Nara is inspiring without being overwhelming, a lovely morning of strolling around and sightseeing.

Shinto by the sea

After Nara we continue East towards Ise, the capital of Japans Shinto religion. Here we visit Ise Jingu, a complex consisting of Japans two most venerated shrines, Geku and Naiku. They are both set in beautiful forest parks with huge redwood trees.

The shrines are relatively simple structures, made of untreated cedar wood and thick thatched roofs crowned by a line of heavy wooden rollers and soaring crossed wooden beams, tipped with copper. The cross beams remind us of the samurai head gear, or crossed swords.

Vintage samurai
Vintage samurai

The design is based on old rice storage spaces and they are kept quite high of the ground by heavy wooden beams.

Ise grand shrine
Ise grand shrine

In line with Shinto tradition they are rebuilt every twenty years, in order to keep the place fresh and new. Next to the current shrine the place of the old shrine is marked by a floorplan laid out in white stones and a small wooden ghost house. The rebuilding of the shrine and the moving of the kami from the old shrine to the new one is a process of many rituals, only for the first time witnessed by a Westerner in the 1950’s.

Over the next few days we visit more shrines and we make a little prayer too: bow before the tori before entering, throw a coin into the collection box, pull at the heavy rope in front of the shrine entrance to ring the bell, bow two times, clap two times, bow one more time. At all of the shrines we visit there is constant coming and going of people of all ages and priests in fabulous classical Japanese robes continuously perform rituals. Shinto seems to be alive and kicking and very much a part of modern Japanese life.

Sunday ceremonial best
Sunday ceremonial best

Next to one of the Ise shrines is a small museum that explains a bit more about the traditions, the rituals and the handicrafts involved in the rebuilding of the Shinto shrines. There is a 100% scale model of the most sacred shrine, which is nice because the original one is hidden behind a wooden fence and can only be seen by the highest priest and the emperor. Seeing how the traditional handicrafts and woodwork have been kept alive for the last 1200 years by this recurring rebuilding is really beautiful. The shrines are built without a single nail: it is all meticulous craftsmanship, perfectly fitting wood connections, chiseled millimeter by millimeter and finally sanded to a velvet finish.

Ise shrine
Ise shrine

What is even more astonishing is that this deeply old fashioned way of living and working exists within one of the most technologically advanced societies of the world. This dichotomy is the most fascinating aspect of Japan. Throughout our trip around Japan we come across open wood workshops and the smell of freshly shaved cedar wood wafting by is a lovely ephemeral impression of Japan, expressing a love of tradition and natural materials.

Kumanokōdō: hot springs and cold baths

After Ise we cut a corner across the peninsula. The road is again beautiful, winding up and down through forested hills. We descend towards the pacific and follow the coast for a few days. Since we visited the Ise shrines and since we are spending so much time outside we feel we are getting closer to the mystical side of Japan. One morning I meet a man by the sea who teaches me how to whistle on a stone that has holes in it, made by a sea creature equipped with a mini-drill. He plays for me and explains he is calling the kami, or local spirits. He says the shrill sound of the whistling stone is the foundation for the music in kabuki theatre.

Before getting back on the bicycle we find some sea turtles swimming in a salt water pond nearby.

Sea turtle says ohayu gozaimasu
Sea turtle says ohayu gozaimasu

We are happily traveling in gorgeous weather and camping by the sea until we get to Kumano, one of the destinations of the Kumanokōdō pilgrimage route. The pilgrimage is an important ritual for followers of the Shugendō religion, a mixture between different esoteric strains of Buddhism and Shinto.

Kumano Hayatama Taishi
Kumano Hayatama Taishi

Shugendō literally means “the path of training and testing”, and the pilgrimage traditionally contained many rituals meant to bring spiritual enlightenment through discipline, for instance washing in ice cold water. We contend ourselves with climbing some mountains and enjoy some of the many hot springs that can also be found on the way.

The Kii peninsula has been a popular pilgrimage destination for the Kyoto noblemen and -women for centuries and there are many beautiful drawings and written reports of the pilgrimages throughout the centuries, on display in several exhibitions along the route. Today it is also popular, but we are mostly alone and only see crowds in the most important shrines.

Hiking part of the historical Kumanokōdō path
Hiking part of the historical Kumanokōdō path

There are three main shrines, hundreds of minor shrines and thousands of jizo or little roadside pilgrimage markers. These jizo are often adorned with a little red bib, an old ritual for the protection of children.

Jizo. Photo: http://bit.ly/1ouQtjw
Jizo. Photo: http://bit.ly/1ouQtjw

We continue along the coastline, rounding the southern cape of Honshu at Kushimoto and traveling up towards Shirahama. Here is our first and favourite onsen of the Kii peninsula: an outdoor rockpool right by the seaside. If you sit close enough to the sea you are warmed by the hot spring water while being sprayed by the cold salt water from the ocean. Pure heaven, and the people who run it are lovely. I am allowed in despite my tattoos and we enjoy a good long soak in the sun. This hot spring has been a favourite of noblemen since about 1000 years and is one of the oldest operating onsen of Japan.

Sakinoyu onsen in Shirahama
Sakinoyu onsen in Shirahama

After our hot bath at Shirahama we head inland again and gradually climb towards Hongu where the main Shugendō shrine is located. We are now entering Golden Week, one of the three short weeks a year when all of hardworking Japan is on a short holiday. The roads are busy and Hongu is full of Japanese holiday makers. Near Hongu is a small village with a cluster of onsen and a campsite, and for the first time since Serbia we put up our tent on a legit campspot, between families in huge tents who are barbecuing as if their life depends on it. Being on a camp site is quite weird after months of stealth camping. We do wonder why we forked out 1400 yen for the privilege of putting up our tent so close to so many other people and not even having a shower. Still,  observing our camping neighbours was good fun, it’s nice to watch the Japanese in relaxed holiday mode. They have brought whole outdoor kitchens along with them and kids and fathers enjoy playing in the river with super soakers and fish nets. Nearby are a couple of slightly upmarket hotels and we enjoy watching the hotel guests clacking around on their traditional wooden geta sandals and in their cotton yukata, back and forth between hotel, restaurant and hot spring. 

Classical Japanese hot spring fashion
Classical Japanese hot spring fashion

We spend an afternoon and a morning in yet another hot spring. Pure bliss, and we feel we are getting close to enlightenment. Who needs a cold shower when you can have a hot bath?

Kōya-san

Well rested and super clean we start our last big climb towards Kōya-san, another highly spiritual place. This high valley surrounded by eight mountain peaks houses a large number of shrines dedicated to Shingon.

Kōya-san temples in the mist
Kōya-san temples in the mist

Shingon is an esoteric Buddhist sect and one of the main arms of Buddhism in Japan. The founder is the monk Kōbō-daishi, and he is believed to be eternally meditating in the main hall, waiting for the end of time. He will come out again when the future buddha or maitreya will appear. Another important site here is a huge graveyard filled with monuments for the dead and surrounded by large redwood trees. When we visit it is quite misty and wet, which makes it even more mystical.

Okunoin graveyard
Okunoin graveyard

Kōya-san is again quite touristy and most people who visit stay in an expensive temple lodging. We make the stupid mistake of asking for permission to camp in the park, which of course can not be granted since the person who is ultimately responsible is not at work on a Sunday. Hm. In the end we sneak a few meters up the Kumanokōdō pilgrimage walking trail and find a flat spot where we are hidden under the cover of a thick mist and the falling darkness. In the morning we have another look at the temples before we head to our final destination of Wakayama.

Damon gate at Kōya-san
Daimon gate at Kōya-san

This time we see the temples in bright sunlight and without other tourists around because we are up and about long before everyone else is waking up. The only people around are monks. One is chanting by one of the temples, a nice low hum together with the whistling birds of the early morning.

The last day on the bike

From Kōya-san we fly down to Wakayama, a pleasant seaside town with nothing much to see or do. Our last day on the bicycle is sunny and easy and we don’t want it to stop. But here we are now, spending a few nights in a fancy hotel, a lovely present by Cyrils mates at racefietsblog. It hasn’t quite dawned on us yet that the fully loaded cycling is now over. We stopped the teller at 11.111 kilometers. We enjoy a couple of days of supreme laziness, sleeping in super comfortable beds and eating our way around town. It will probably take a while before we fully realise what we have accomplished together. But first, Tokyo awaits, our official finish line. Bright lights, big city: party time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

365 days on the road

Today it’s exactly one year ago since we cycled out of Amsterdam, off on our great adventure. From here to Tokyo, as the Dutch expression goes, is indeed a very long way, but we are very close. Even though we can almost see the Tokyo bright lights from where we are it is still hard to comprehend we actually did this. We cycled from The Netherlands to Japan. In our last week of cycling before we get into to Tokyo we are enjoying the peace of the Mie peninsula, the spiritual home of the Shinto religion. It is a tranquil place with gorgeous forests, cedar shrines with thatched roofs and beautiful little roads winding up and down the mountains and the coastlines. The weather is just perfect, sunny and warm, and we are camping a lot. This is where we find some space to reflect on the past year.

Lonely tori
Lonely tori

Mid bike crisis

Before we left we were joking: “this is our midlife crisis project!”. But we never really thought we were actually going through a midlife crisis. We were eagerly looking forward to our big trip, but the idea was always that after one year we would come back to our old lives in Amsterdam. We genuinely liked our lives: our work, our friends, our own place here. There was a lot to come back to, and we saw plenty of interesting projects ahead to keep us excited about returning home. I would do another study, Cyril might do more with cycling.

Why go?

Although every time someone asked this I consequently replied with ‘why not’? We have both traveled extensively before this trip so we never expected any profound new-agey revelations about ourselves. We always saw it as a wonderfully enriching experience, something to never regret. A chance to test our boundaries and our endurance. A chance to take a step back from our busy lives and think about the years ahead. A chance to make new wild plans together without the distractions of everyday life. I read somewhere that travel is not about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself. I really like this notion, that travel won’t make you stumble upon some sort of divine light that will reveal all about yourself but it does give you the space to actively work on the person you already are. There is little room for delusional bullshit when you are climbing a 4500m mountain pass and you haven’t been able to keep your food inside for days. Even if you are traveling together and helping each other, ultimately you have to face the hard bits on your own. I think this is one mental and physical challenge we both passed with flying colours. We loved most of our days on this trip and not for one second did we think about quitting. Although now I do exactly know where my limit is: in the house of a goat herd at around 4200m high, at -15 degrees at night, having lost 7 kilos to parasites and getting progressively worse with altitude sickness. Never, ever will I attempt to cycle the Pamir Highway again; but Cyril loved it and we made some amazing new friends who faced the same challenges.

Feeling high with Chloe & WIll from Whalebone on a bike an Tim from Bicycle Diaries

Confronting stuff

Both of us have been ill for weeks which was quite an unsettling experience. However this brush with bad luck and the accompanying feelings of vulnerability and disorientation did make us really appreciate our good health when it eventually returned. Our health, and the comfort and priviliges of our native Western society, is something we were of course aware of but had always taken for granted. We know we are extremely lucky to be able to afford good care. This is not the case for many people we met on the road.

Sudden deafness. Say what?
Sudden deafness. Say what?

Team Oufti no more

One completely unexpected outcome was the effect the trip has had on our relationship. We never saw our break-up coming. But, this trip was a challenge in many ways, not just physically and mentally but also emotionally. It is confronting, to suffer and to see your partner suffering along with you, and not always knowing the right things to do. Then there is the 24/7 life in close-up, warts (farts) and all. Very sexy, I can tell you. Not!

Then there is the organization of the sometimes boring practicalities of the days ahead. Never having the opportunity to make yourself look nice for the other. Being tired, cold, sick and cranky. Not having enough time and space to truly unwind, alone or together. This sounds really bleak and in a way it was. Almost imperceptibly we grew apart, even though we remained great travel buddies who hardly squabbled. For now we still enjoy traveling together, but the real break-up will come after Tokyo, when we both go our own way and we will be truly on our own for the first time in more than a year. I will move to Kunming, a Chinese city I fell in love with. I have lots of plans for my new life there: work with an art gallery, teach English, learn as much as I can about the Chinese language and culture. Cyril will cycle back via Korea, fly to Italy and cross the Alps on the way home to Amsterdam. We are both looking forward to settling into a home after our year on the move.

What a wonderful world

Apart from the discoveries about ourselves and each other we also experienced some beautiful lessons about the world and the people that inhabit it. Rationally we already knew that people are much the same everywhere. The majority of the people want to work, they want their children to go to school, they want to be healthy and most of all they want to be left in peace. This ‘normality’ of most people is of course completely understandable. Still, this trip has brought this home in many more ways than just an intellectual understanding. To personally experience the extreme hospitality, the generosity, the kindness, the curiosity and the sheer fun of all the people we met is something that has been a deeply emotional experience and has ingrained itself into our souls.

Sweet Noushin & mum
Sweet Noushin & mum

For the rest of our lives we will cherish the memories of being handed a bag of food, of being invited in for tea, of being offered places to sleep from Utrecht to Osaka, of receiving a little gift from someone who doesn’t share a language with us, of the thousands of waves and smiles all the way from Amsterdam to Tokyo. If we ever had any kind of unconscious Eurocentric prejudice about all the different people in the rest of the world I hope we have now well and truly left it by the side of the road. Exactly this, the loveliness of people everywhere, has been the most enriching part of our trip. We hope we have been able to get this across a little bit through our blog and pictures.

A holiday from the holiday

In hindsight, would we do it again? Yes! We don’t regret this trip one bit, even despite the heavy personal cost of our break-up. It is tricky to say what exactly we should have done differently. One thing that could have made a difference would have been to take more unplanned down time. Just like at home we were carried along by the relentless flow of the days rushing by. We were almost continuously on the move, unless we were forced to stay somewhere for visum organization or hospital treatment. We felt there were deadlines to meet, such as staying ahead of the winter in Tajikistan or the limit of a three month visum for China. Even in the places where we stayed for a while we filled up our days with sight-seeing, hiking, socializing and planning ahead, because that’s what we are like.

Stop and smell the cherry blossom
Stop and smell the cherry blossom

Before we left I talked to a Turkish shoe maker in Amsterdam. His Dutch wasn’t very good but he made very clear what he thought about our trip. In his eyes we were rich, not financially rich but rich in experiences, because we took the time to do this. And today, in a small Japanese town, someone said exactly the same thing. We might be broke after one year on the road, yet we are rich.

First camp after Khorog
First camp after Khorog

 

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.