The first few hours are rough. I have to find my way to the hostel in the dark, crossing several industrial estates with some guard dogs. Where is Vera, where is the pepperspray? I make it to the hostel and try to find some food. After japan with its seemingly infinite number of convenience stores, the north of Busan seems quite empty and deserted. I crash in my hot dorm room without dinner, hoping to sleep off this first impression of South Korea.
No I in Oufti
The sun is out and I am ready to get going. Stock up on food, water and fuel and head north. I’ll be following the 4 rivers bike path which will take me all the way from Busan in the south eastern tip to Seoul in the north west of South Korea. The ride is not really adventurous, but taking it on alone after cycling together with Vera for over a year feels strange and unsettleing. Yes, I can decide everything by myself now, but I really do miss sharing the first impressions, making the plan for the next few days and just being together. Sometimes I cry a little on the bike behind my sunglasses and think a lot about the last past year and everything we shared and experienced with the two of us. There is no I in team Oufti.
The cycling in Korea is great. Near perfect bike paths take me further away from Busan and into the countryside. I meet some other cyclist who ride part of the 4 rivers route or are just doing a short workout along the river. There are signs everywhere and enough water and food to make the cycling very comfortable. I do notice I don’t stop a lot and prefer to keep pedalling along. Cycling alone is okay, but sightseeing or enjoying a lunch feels very different now. Camping along the river is no problem, there are some empty campgrounds that are supposed to be packed in the weekends and enough beautiful stealth spots to provide me with good sleep.
During the six days it takes me to reach Seoul I run into some nice and interesting people. More and more I manage to open up and talk to these strangers. Jim, the golf columnist who brings me a Guinness beer, George and his friend Michael (for real!) who are cycling the other way and the english couple Yvette and Robin, who are travelling with Bike Friday folding bicycles and with whom I have a nice lunch all confirm what we have experienced for the last thirteen months: people are nice, they just need to talk to each other. Being on my own made me a little reserved and maybe even scared more than I used to be when travelling together. The combination of comfort, easy route was great for me to return to myself and be confident enough to keep going on my own.
There are not many big cities that are so easy to cycle into as Seoul. There are great cycling routes all along the Han river that splits the city. I haven’t booked any accomodation in advance but manage to find a hostel smackbang in the middle of Gangnam. As always, a metropolis can enhance the feeling of loneliness, and it does this time as well. Until I ride out to the Rapha clubhouse a few blocks away that is. The feeling of coming home is a mix of the familiar interior and vibe, the espresso that tastes the same as in Amsterdam and a film about my home town that just happens to play on the big screen as I arrive. I feel goosebumps and some tears as I have my first real wave of homesickness since a long time. The coffee and company of RCC manager Adam relaxes me and I feel at home on the other side of the planet.
In Seoul I spend most of my time cycling around with Rapha, the guys behind Far Ride magazine and on my own. I enjoy the company of other (road) cyclists, visit some nice bike shops and try to find my way in a city of 22 million Koreans. It is a intriguing hybrid between Korean and Western culture. It feels to big to live in, and most people I talk to agree. Yes the cycling paths and parks along the river offer the residents some space to breath and move, but when I ride along the path on a saturday it looks like half of all the people living in the city put up their tent for a day of camping. It feels more like a festival ground, the place is packed! I decide I don’t want to live in a city you can’t get out of easily, guess I’m just getting old.
While I sit in the airplane on the runway that will take me back to Europe there are a lot of thoughts and emotions. I miss Vera like crazy and hope she is getting her life started in Kunming. We keep in touch of course, but it’s not the same as spending 24 hours together every day for more than a year. In Europa I’ll slowly will make my way back home, visiting friends along the way in Rome, Geneva, Zürich and München. There are still some challenges ahead, mainly the route over the Alps from Nice to Geneva, but the biggest one will be enjoying my time on the road alone.
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.
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.
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.
One night we spend on a real camp site, a special experience.
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.
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.
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.
The design is based on old rice storage spaces and they are kept quite high of the ground by heavy wooden beams.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.