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.
We have already left Japan, so this post is a throwback to our days in the Japanese cities, finishing in the biggest of them all: Tokyo.
A little bit over a month ago we arrived in Tokyo, a city of 32 million people and our final destination. We were a bit daunted by the mindboggling size and influenced by films like Bladerunner, Akira and Ghost in the Shell we were expecting a mad, hectic, sleazy and noisy monster of a place. In fact, it is quite a relaxed place and on our first day we cycle more than 30kms around Tokyo. We did have some preparation for the biggest city of them all though.
As pleasantly surprised as we are about the easy access to so much beautiful nature in Japan, it is difficult to cycle around the country without crossing some urban areas every now and again. On Kyushu and Shikoku the cities are not very large and quite relaxed. At first sight they are quite beige, but there are always some interesting places to visit such as a museum, a park or a shrine. There are still many houses in classical Japanese style with a carefully manicured garden to match.
When we start cycling towards Kyoto after our days on the Naoshima art island we opt for making some distance. We cycled for a couple of days in seemingly never-ending suburbs, mostly existing of American-style strip building lined with chain restaurants and shopping malls along a busy highway. In more central city neighbourhoods we share the pavement with the cycling morning commuters: mothers with children, businessmen in suits and kids going to school. We love how bike friendly Japan is, and that it is a perfectly normal way of getting around for many people. The busy roads are not too bad since the traffic is slow and there is usually some sort of bike lane. When we veer off the main road we still find peaceful camping spots, one even right in the middle of Osaka in a small neighbourhood park.
Cycling into the cities has its perks too. We can add some variation to the daily convenience store bento box diet and we sample our first okonomiyaki, the Japanese answer to the Dutch kapsalon. It is a pile of noodles, egg, seafood or meat, fried on a hot plate and doused in sauces. Cheap, filling and tasty.
Our first bigger city is Kobe. We arrive in the evening with a ferry from Naoshima and marvel at the wide boulevards, the highrise and the gleaming lights of some serious starchitecture such as the memorial for the 1995 earthquake. This magnitude 7 earthquake was the worst in Japan in the 20th century. It destroyed every building in the city that was built before the strict building laws of 1981 came into effect. The city and the harbour were severely damaged and the disaster cost more than 6000 lives. On the positive side, it resulted in a large volunteer effort with people from all over the country coming out to help, and the date of the earthquake is now national volunteer day. The city was quickly rebuilt and today it is a lively place with no immediate traces of the disaster. In Kobe we only spend one night, but we are lucky: our Amsterdam friend Enno has linked us with his friend Hiro and we are invited to stay with Hiro at his mother’s house.
The house is traditional Japanese, with tatami on the floor, sliding doors and calligraphy and ikebana arrangements in our room. The house where Hiro grew up was destroyed in the quake but rebuilt on the same spot. Hiro’s mum cooks us a fantastic meal and we have a great evening drinking beer and talking. We have one dish which consists of tiny raw squid. They are drowned in vats of soy sauce when they are caught so they are almost black, suffused with the salty sauce. Very cruel but also very tasty.
From Kobe we cycle to Osaka in one day. Here we spend only one full day. It is a pretty modern city with shopping and clubbing as its main attractions. Not really our thing, but the city has a nice vibe and we are slowly starting to get excited about the big city buzz again.
In Osaka we meet more cycling friends when we visit the Rapha Cycle Club. We are completely blown away by the warm welcome they have prepared for us: there are Oufti banners and photos and we have a great afternoon chatting with road racers who can’t believe how freaking heavy our fully loaded bikes are.
From Osaka we follow a traffic-free bike path along the river all the way into Kyoto, where we stay for a few days. My friend Roosmarijn Pallandt has an exhibition at the Kyotographie photo biennale and we spend a couple of days helping her out. It is decidedly weird to be back into my old line of cultural production work again after a year on the road. Her work hangs in a beautiful old house, formerly a kimono makers place, now a chique tea house and exhibition space.
The opening of the exhibition features a performance by an Ikebana artist. Ikebana is one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement that were developed in the 7th century and closely linked to Zen Buddhism. The art of flower arrangement, the tea ceremony and the art of incense appreciation all originated from temple rituals but developed into independent art forms. We are all sitting on the tatami floor in one of the larger rooms which opens onto the inner courtyard garden with sliding doors. The master is an older man who speaks very engagingly to the audience, before gracefully placing a single branch in a wicker container. This description of the performance doesn’t do any justice to the ritual of Japanese flower arrangement. The atmosphere is cerebral, and I have never seen an audience so rapt. The man disappears with the container through a sliding door. We hold our breath. Then, the paper doors at the end of the room slide open to show us the completed piece, with the garden as a backdrop. There is some time for contemplation and the master appears again, to a round of applause.
Kyoto is one of the tourist highlights of Japan, and the first temple we visit we are surrounded by throngs of tourists. This is a small shock to the system after weeks of not seeing all that many foreigners. Many tourists dress up in garish geisha outfits which makes for nice people watching and a colourful addition to the historical sights.
Throughout the city there are still many traditional houses and one evening we glimpse a real geisha emerging from a private function in one of these houses. There are still about 2.000 real geisha working in Japan, but today they start their training after they finish high school, and not at the age of four as was customary. Geisha are highly skilled and independent businesswomen and not prostitutes as is a common conception in the West. The word geisha litterly translates as artist: gei = art sha = person. Traditionally it was a way to be financially independent without having to marry.
We like Kyoto but we find it difficult to be indoors instead of camping, so we are happy to cycle out of the city and into the green Kii Peninsula (see the latest blog post).
From the Kii peninsula we take a ferry to Tokushima, and from there an overnight boat to Tokyo. This ferry is mostly a cargo boat with only one floor for passengers and simple but very comfortable capsule cabins. There is no restaurant, only vending machines and microwaves. But, there is an onsen on board which is a huge bonus. It is strange to slosh around in a pool on board of a ship that is rocked by the waves. In the morning I watch Tokyo glide into view while floating in the hot pool with huge windows overlooking the sea.
We are too early for our Airbnb appartment so we do a recce of Tokyo with our fully loaded bikes. Our first stop is the small but exquisite temple for the god of strong legs. We could not have found a more fitting location to end our journey. We say a little prayer and leave a wooden plaque with a wish for more travel in good health, and gratitude for the trip we made.
Tokyo is easy to cycle around in, and over the next couple of days we do some sightseeing, in search of Japanese metabolist and brutalist architecture and exciting subcultures. The first we find in abundance; either from the top of the 45th-floor viewing platform in the Tokyo City Hall offices (designed by Kenzo Tange) or glimpses of small and smartly designed townhouses on street level. These concrete houses look somewhat grim and austere on the outside but imply a simple and beautiful Japanese interior, just like Tadao Ando’s designs.
I come down with a severe stomach bug so never have a chance to dive into Tokyo’s nightlife. Our apartment is supposedly in the heart of Japanese youth culture but the gothic lolita girls we met when we came out of Fukuoka airport are in the end the only ones we see on this trip. The people in Tokyo look mostly very normal and we are a little bit disappointed. A place that absolutely doesn’t disappoint is Tokyo’s National Museum, a treasure trove of historical artefacts. We can now link the certain historical periods to places that we have visited, which makes the artworks really come to life. There are amazing ink paintings, samurai swords, sculpture and other temple treasures. A must-visit when you come to Tokyo.
Another interesting outing we make is to the nearby academic hospital to find a diagnosis and treatment for my funky tummy. We marvel at the quiet professionalism and without any preferential treatment because of our skin colour we get to meet a doctor who runs all kinds of insanely expensive tests (thank you travel insurance!). He gets quite excited when he hears about our previous Central Asia stomach troubles. All kinds of parasites he has never before encountered in his practice. So, I will have to come back to Tokyo, because I spent most of the time here in bed, recovering and hoping I will be well enough in time to get on my flight to China.
Cyril leaves Tokyo for two days to participate in the Eroica Japan ride. The event is close to Mount Fuji but the mountain is feeling shy that day and hiding behind the clouds. Still, he has a nice day out riding with some interesting characters, other cyclists who love vintage bikes and gear. This being Japan many of them are dressed to the nines on perfectly restored vintage steel bikes.
And then, it is time to pack up the bikes. We are flying on the same day from Narita airport. Me to Chengdu, from where I will take a train to my new home in Kunming. Cyril will fly to Korea, where he will cycle for two weeks before flying to Rome and cycling back home. We have a relatively hassle-free trip to the airport and before we know it it is time to say our goodbyes. Cyril flies first, so I wave him through the security check. A long last hug and some tears, equally sad and happy. Sad because we are saying goodbye after a year of travel and three and a half years together. But happy with everything we have accomplished together and our friendship intact despite breaking up. On to new adventures.
In a couple of months, when Cyril is back in Amsterdam, we’ll post a throwback blog post to share our thoughts and feelings about this trip after returning to a more or less normal life. In the meantime I will start writing for a new blog. More about that later. Right now I am quite busy settling into my new life in China, which is going rather well. I like my job, I have a challenging art project ahead, I’m meeting nice people, I have the headspace and stable internet connection to catch up with friends and family back home, I’m studying Chinese and I enjoy the creature comforts of having a lovely house surrounded by lush green, with a washing machine and a bathtub. For now, I don’t miss the cycling much, but I’m happy with the thought that I can pack up my panniers anytime and hit the road again. For now China is my challenge and I love it.
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!