Back to the old world

From Seoul in South Korea I fly directly to Rome, the first European stop on my way home. It took Vera and me 13 months to travel mostly on our bicycles from Europe to far East Asia, but it only takes 13 hours on a plane to get back. While Vera is settling into her new life in Kunming in China, I return to Europe for the first time in over a year. So it isn’t strange that I have a little culture shock. Everything in Rome looks so old and most of it quite dirty in comparison to Japan and South Korea. Buildings are crumbling and tagged all over, there’s garbage on the street and the road itself isn’t this smooth tarmac I rode on in Seoul. And then there’s the people. They are so much less reserved than back in Tokyo and Seoul. There is bare skin everywhere, shouting and of course a guy pissing against the central station in Rome where i put together my bike to make my way to Martino, an Italian we met while travelling in Iran. He invited me to stay at his place near the centre of Rome. When we meet I feel this wave on nostalgia and am happy to finally ‘land’. It relaxes me and I notice I start to enjoy Rome for the first time. I sense the warm evening air, smell the typical fruity aroma and enjoy some wine and great Italian food with Martino. Unfortunately we only get to share one evening together, but I am sure we will meet again.

Not the most bike-friendly city in the old world

Working girls

After an espresso at the legendary Caffe San Eustachio and a short visit to the Pantheon I try to get out of the city as fast as I can. Rome isn’t really bike-friendly and on my way to Castelnuevo north of the city I pass some north African working girls on one of the roads leading out of the capital. Again I am wondering about our European cultural values and what they mean to me. We pride ourselves on openess, freedom and equality, but seeing these girls beside the road make me question the true meaning of those words. For months I haven’t seen any exploitation of women like this. I know it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but the way we accept it as a ‘normal’ day tot day element of our lives is also a bit shocking.

Thankfully the next few days in Castelnuevo show me the other side of life in the old world. My friend Karen from Scotland moved to what she calls ‘Newcastle’ after having had several appartments in Rome for many years. Castelnuevo is a small, medieval town where life moves slowely. Everyone gathers on the main square at night for pizza or a gelato and the social aspect of this is something I really enjoy. Together with the food, wine and nice weather I sense I’ve missed some parts of Europe as well, but I look at it differently now, appreciating some elements more than before.

Castelnuevo aka Newcastle on the hill

For the love of film

On my last day at the Castelnuevo retreat we decide to visit a sight that has been on my to-see-list for a long time: CineCitta. This once thriving village was built within a year, under supervision of Mussolini in the 1930’s. It’s a massive complex of studios (teatros in Italian), massive outdoor sets and nowadays a lovely museum dedicated to the big names in Italian cinema. Everything just oozes love for film. The costumes worn by Elizabeth Taylor, the stories about Fellini who lived at the CineCitta for a while and the great insight in the mind of Sergio Leone are highlights for Karen and me. We conclude a great visit with a guided tour around the purpose built sets that look just like the real thing, except for some historically totally incorrect changes. Vera would have loved to have a look around here I think, and I feel the distance between us now we’re in different continents.

It’s time to head for the harbour of Civitavecchia as I ride around the beautiful Bracciano lake, passing through some more villages where time seems to stand still. On the way I spend a night with friends of Karen who host me although they don’t know me at all and when they head out in the morning for work, they leave me in charge of the house. Good to see that not only Warmshower or Couchsurfing hosts can be as trusting as this.

After travelling in countries like Japan and South Korea it takes some time to get used to the nonchelance of Southern European signage and lack of organisation at for example the harbour where my ferry for Sardinia leaves. Finding my way, understanding where and when to go to check-in, it all seems straight from a funny movie. Signs are missing, hardly anybody speaks (or wants to speak) English and together with some Austrian motorcyclists I manage to find the ferry and actually get on board as one of the last passengers after a very lacklustre customs check.

Neighbours with helicopters

Sardinia is just what I need. A warm place with lovely food and empty roads. Of course some towns are a little touristy, especially around the Costa Smerelda area, but is is a beautiful place as well. My first night I spend on a small beach with a multi-million dollar yacht as a neighbour. I count at least 7 decks and spot a helicopter on top. Hopefully they’re not looking when I try to put up my tent across their floating palace in a strong summer breeze. I do ponder about the difference in lifestyle, and decide I like the freedom my little tent and bicycle give me, as the yacht seems like a nice place to stay, but also as something that costs a fortune to keep afloat. The next few days I enjoy cycling around the North of the Island, switching from seaside to hilltops all the time and climbing quite a lot in the process, sweating like a wild Sardinian pig. Again I do notice the difference between cycling alone or together. On the bike I don’t mind being alone, but visiting towns, having lunch and pitching the tent are just less fun alone without VeloVera.

Che bella strada

After five days it’s time to leave Sardinia and I hop over to Corsica. My last week alone on the road as Alex will join me in Nice for one of the more challenging parts: the Route des Grandes Alpes which we will tackle together. But first I take a ferry to another place I have been looking forward to to visit for a long time. Corsica doesn’t dissapoint: the roads along the coast offer great views of the crystal clear sea, the local food all tastes wonderful and if you want to you can climb all day when you leave the coast behind. It is also quite clear you’re not in Italy anymore. Gone are the gelaterias but in come the boulangeries. I cross the island from South to North, following the Eastern coastline. I have some time to spare and decide to head to the hills and the picture perfect town of Corte. It is a worthwhile detour and it means I can also enjoy the downhill parts when I make my way to Bastia. I stay two nights in lovely Bastia and enjoy the company of warmshower hosts Izabella, Aurélien and their happy dog Tuca. It is very nice to feel like I am actually meeting up with old friend instead of staying with someone I hardly know. Sharing travel stories, inspiration and just joking around feels very good. For the first time I also notice that I’m starting to look forward to going ‘home’… but first there are some Alps to conquer.

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Solo South Korea

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.

Cycle path perfection

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.

Keep going

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.

Seoul searching

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.

Big city life

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.

Cycling unites: riding around with RCC members in Seoul

Take off

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.

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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!