Here’s to the Children – Tobishima Kaido and Farewell Japan

Hey all, it’s been awhile.  A lot has happened.  A year has passed since the loss of my uncle and other ironically inter-related events drastically changed my outlook on things – my perception of humanity and relationships and myself.  Last month was the anniversary of his death.  This month, I turn 32.  I just found my very first white hair, gained here in Japan.  I guess it’s proof I was a little stressed now and then during the last two years. 😉  It has been an especially somber, reflective couple of months, and now I’m ramping up the activity for my last two months in Japan.  Every weekend is already planned out.  All spare time allocated.  I won’t have time to think or to write between now and my flight out, so this is it, folks.  I’ll post more stories of my Japanese adventures after I’ve had time to readjust to living elsewhere.

So, what’s been going on since my last post?  I went to South Korea and stepped into North Korea a few steps, I saw the relics and ongoing effects and opponents and perpetuators of war, I realized that I made the most fantastic friends just in time to leave them behind, Prince died, Fort Mac burned, I went on another long bike ride, and I put my headphones on to Mogwai and realized that if my heart ever wakes up again, it will be to the sound of the guitar.   I know that now.  I’m certain.  Life is great and the world is beautiful and it’s only people who can change that for us – if we let them.  I wonder how many people who think they’re humble are really that way.  I know I wasn’t, despite what I and others thought.  I’m definitely more so now.  (Oxymoron alert!)  Perhaps to the other extreme.  Self-esteem is overrated anyway in a world full of me-worshipping selfie-snapping blog-obsessed tech junkies. 😉 (See what I did there?  Extra points for counting the number of times I write I in this post.)

Here’s the interesting thing about living in cycling paradise – despite the idea that the extra tourists cycling through the small islands will funnel money into the local economies, that doesn’t really seem to be happening.  The fit cyclists can ride from one end of the Shimanami Kaido to the other in one day, so their accommodation and shopping money is generally spent in the two cities at either end of it.  The settlements on the little islands along the way still seem to be hanging on to existence by their fingernails.  If you really look around while you whiz past on your sleek bike, you’ll see that the shops are closing down and the houses, falling down.  After living here for awhile, the Shimanami Kaido feels pretty mainstream to me.  So I wanted to try something less popular but still accessible during my last Golden Week here.  (Golden Week is a string of national holidays the entire country takes off together, so that hotels can fill their coffers with gold by scamming everyone with sky-high prices.  May or may not be true.)

Cramming onto the Shimanami Kaido with hundreds of others was not my idea of a relaxing holiday.  But just a hop, skip, and jump away is the Tobishima Kaido, another string of islands joined by bridges, also a cycling route marked by that ubiquitous wide blue line along the shoulder of the road.  The entire length of it is only about 30 kilometres.  Too short, said I, and I was right.  So I decided to go along to Kure, on the main island of Japan.  That added another 20 kilometres.  Perfect, said I, and I was right.  But that didn’t account for the bit of Shimanami Kaido I had to do to get there.  Add about another 30 clicks to that.  Still, only 80 kms.  Perfectly doable when it’s just you and a nice road bike, flitting along the perfectly-manicured-even-in-the-middle-of-the-inaka-roads.  But of course I had to make things difficult for myself.  I decided I’d go bike camping again.  Because now that I’ve got a road bike, things will be sooo much easier. Ha. Haha.

I started out with my tires at recommended pressure, and nearly died of exhaustion getting to the next proper pump on the next island.  Pumped those suckers up to near-rock and suddenly the bike was rideable again.  Great!  On to the next island, Omishima, and heading along the “Island Explorer” route.  No problem until I get to the hills that make Kei cars groan…I was pretty worn out before I even reached the start of the Tobishima Kaido, but no worries.  I had all day after all, and was planning to camp at a campsite midway through the TK.  Of course I was too late for the mid-morning ferry and too early for the mid-afternoon ferry, but I had a snack and napped a bit.  No problem.  I was on holiday after all.  It turns out there were about 200 people hospitalized throughout the country for heat stroke, to give you an idea of the blissful weather I cycled in. 😀  I thought it was perfect at the time, if a bit hot!

The islands of the TK make the Shimanami Kaido look veritably urban.  I feel like I will be one of the last people to have seen those villages and buildings standing.  I rode to the old port town of Miterai, where Korean envoys were hosted back in the day, and families gave their daughters to teahouses where they eventually became courtesans/prostitutes.  After a brief wander through the (older) historical areas to check out the architecture and some museums in a town apparently all but deserted, I carried on, feeling empowered by the mystique of the experience to take the long way around that island.  I passed an old man building fantastic ship models as he stared out across the road and beyond the sea wall to the sea.  I couldn’t take his picture.  It felt wrong.  To explain is impossible but had you been there, perhaps you would have understood.  I ate a fantastic meal that was grossly overpriced at the only restaurant open at 5 p.m. in a  sleepy seaside town in the midst of national holiday season, and I felt good about paying that much.  As I entered, the waitress asked me if I needed to use the washroom.  She nearly floated on air when I stated I’d like to eat something if they were still open.

It means something to them when a cyclist actually stops and eats there.  Over an hour later, as I sped down a steep downhill, sharing a lane with traffic, knowing that the slightest mistake would cause me to crash and go to hospital (or worse), a black boxy generic Kei car came whipping up behind me.  Good, I thought, pass me quickly.  But no – they slowed down to match my speed, trapping me between the six-inch cement curb and the black Kei reaper.  A lady leaned her head out the car window, graying hair flying in the wind generated from roughly 70 kms/hr speeds, and yelled, mere inches from my face, “Arigatou gozaimasu!!!”  It takes some nerve to hold your line steady when you’re having a heart attack, let me tell you.  But I smiled and nodded in reply.  And most importantly, didn’t crash, and also managed to recognize the lady as one of the waitresses from the restaurant – with her hair down.

Everything along the Tobishima Kaido screams for help.  The bridges are nowhere near the glamourous Shimanami Kaido bridges, their silhouettes sometimes reminiscent of Tolkien’s descriptions of Argonath.  Instead they are compact and practical.  They don’t need to be more.  The islands are close together and the traffic is sparse and slow.  Most bridges don’t have a separate lane for cyclists – again, there’s no need.  That lone car can wait thirty seconds to pass you until you’re off the bridge.

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LITTLE BRIDGE TO NOWHERE.  FOREGROUND:  LITTLE CART TO NOWHERE.

I arrived in Kure the next day, after riding in the pouring rain for an hour or so.  I visited the Yamato Museum, built in honour of a magnificent battleship full of new technology which Japan sent on a suicide mission near the end of the war.  Of course, after basically being tossed in the bin along with its operators lives, it’s now a legendary, revered part of history here…  I saw display after display of Japan’s shipbuilding history in Kure – of course largely focused on war, as that was the reason Kure became so important nationally.  In addition to all the battleship models, there was a Zero fighter plane, manned kamikaze submarines, and small wave generator machine that I was pretty excited to operate myself.  Yeah, I’m a nerd.  Machines are cool, especially when they have big start buttons! 😀  I tried out Kure’s yatai in the evening.  To say they are similar to Hakata’s would be an insult to Fukuoka.  They are yatai, but just go in a proper restaurant when you’re in Kure…zannen.  After that it was onsen and massage chair time back in the hotel.  I sorely needed it. 😉

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LOOKING OUT AT KURE PORT

The next day, I shipped my heaviest gear home and rode the 84 kms back all in one go.  It was a beautiful day – overcast enough to filter out most of the scorching Japanese sun but warm enough to make my picnics enjoyable.  Along the way I saw reminders like this that May 5 was children’s day:

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How lucky children are, to be so curious and pure and humble and open for a short time.  How lucky we are, to be able to influence them for good and teach them how to make things better for themselves and others.  And how sad it is when they learn other things from us instead.

Note to self, note to all:  Just you and the bike.  Drop the tech and look around.  See what’s around you, because it won’t be here later.  In real life moments can’t be replayed.

Farewell Japan.  Thanks to all the people here who made it what it is to me, and who will probably never read this.  Love, RamblingMinoux.

The Great Shimanami Kaido Bikecamping Adventure – The Final Day

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The view from this camp-ground is stunning.  It’s sheltered from the wind, and so compared to the previous night’s tent-in-a-tempest-rest, I slept like a baby.  More or less.  Less because the camp-ground is also a very popular spot for the locals, who wander past late at night walking their dogs, and then starting at roughly 5:30 a.m, weave their scooters through the NO BICYCLES PAST THIS POINT gate and ride down the footpath past your tent and along the cliff edge to their favourite fishing points.  I walked down this footpath.  It’s barely a footpath – I don’t think even my craziest dirt biking friends would try riding down it.  But, holding a 7 foot rod in one hand and a bucket in the other?  Why not, eh?  It doesn’t look so bad in this photo, because you can’t see around the corner where the paving stones are falling into the sea.  Oh, and it’s not dark out.

WP_20151229_15_00_17_Pro.jpgI sat at the end of a concrete pier and watched the sunrise while I ate a lovely breakfast (read: the rest of my peanuts and some octopus jerky) with some hot coffee and a bottle of orange juice from the camp-ground vending machine.  To say I needed it was an understatement.  I still had to ride 30 minutes back to the nearest convenience store, where I planned to sit down and eat a “real” breakfast (onigiri and French fries and fried chicken and another coffee) before riding the last 40 or so kilometres to Matsuyama.

It was a good plan, except I decided to stop at the convenience store across the road from the one I had been at the day before…and this conbini didn’t have seats.  Or kariage.  Or fried potato.  Fail.  No matter though, I ate some cheesy croissant thing and then I hit the road, Jack.

The road I took wasn’t the ideal cycling route.  At one point I was sandwiched between a high guard rail and large trucks.  It would have been fine had I been well-rested.  Instead, I was exhausted after about a thirty minute ride and desperate for the next convenience store.  So exhausted that when I spied one across the road, I misjudged the speed of an truck behind me before cutting gleefully across the road toward the LAWSONS sign, like iron to a magnet. Fwip.

Thankfully, there was no harm done, not even close, the truck was just a little faster than I figured.  I made a note to make sure I was 100% alert before carrying on.  (Not really up for dying just yet.)  Anyway, I refuelled myself and had a good long rest at the Lawsons café style seats, charged up my electronics at the provided plug-ins, watched through the window as a couple of older men discussed my loaded bicycle at great length.  I think I’d do the same, if I were in their place.  It’s not the kind of loaded bicycle you see every day…

After carrying on, my different route choice turned out wonderfully.  I happened to ride past (or possibly through!) a shipyard where I was shocked to see a brand new sister ship to the brand new ship just built in Innoshima.  They appear exactly the same except for their names, GLOBAL HIGHWAY and ORION HIGHWAY.  These ships are absolutely monstrous.

WP_20151230_10_50_05_Pro__highres.jpgGLOBAL HIGHWAY, near Onishi, Ehime Prefecture

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ORION HIGHWAY, Innoshima, Hiroshima Prefecture

Just past this shipyard, my route rejoined one of the recommended cycling routes from Imabari to Matsuyama.  There are two promoted routes – one is a mountain route, and one is a nice, easy coastal ride.  Guess which one I rode?  Once again, I had the beautiful blue line to guide me.  The weather was perfect, the ride was great.  There are no hills, just a few slight inclines along the coast.  Once the route juts inland towards Matsuyama, there are only a couple of large hills, but all in all it was a very enjoyable ride.  I found the ride preferable to the Shimanami Kaido proper and all its bridge ramps, from an ease-of-use-whilst-pedalling-dead-weight-bicycle perspective.  Once inside the city, the blue line will take you directly to Dogo Onsen, so I had a little bit of navigating to do before I reached the JR Station (due to one-way streets and lack of bicycle crossings this was slightly trickier than it would be by car or on foot).

I picked up a nice selection of Matsuyama maps at the tourist information booth, had the attendant circle my hotel for me in red, and off I went.  I was ready to fall over and being self-sufficient was nowhere on my priority list at this point.  (My priority list, incidentally, was this:  1 – Don’t get in an accident. 2 – Don’t fall over. 3 – Find hotel. 4 – Shower. Lots.  5 – FOOD!)

I wish I had video of my arrival at the hotel.  It has a very posh lobby with marble tiles and gilt lion statues at the door, and plush carpeting and leather sofas inside.  I parked my bike on the marble and went on in, sunburned, sweaty, helmeted, cycling tights, disgusting 10 year old shoes, and checked in.  And asked where the bike parking was.  Around the back somewhere.  And apparently I was supposed to bring my “luggage” into the lobby first.  So, I did that.  It was a fantastic moment.  Suited, immaculately groomed clerks watched as I hauled in my trash-bag-reflective-taped camping gear and deposited it on the lobby floor along with my tent and backpack.  That was that.  I had arrived.  I enquired if I might have a box in order to ship my camping gear home.  I was done bike camping.  My knees had had enough.  I would ride back to Imabari on a bike about 5 kilograms lighter.

After a fantastically long bath and well-deserved beer from the hotel vending machine, I took a stroll down to a magical restaurant and had the meal of my life.   A long visit to the hotel onsen ended the last day of my Great Shimanami Kaido Bikecamping Adventure.

I would do it again in a heartbeat…on a different bike. 😉

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The Great Shimanami Kaido Bikecamping Adventure – Day 2

Well, dollars short and days late, here’s the next instalment of the tale.

Before doing any storytelling, I’m going to digress for a bit and break down exactly how heavy my stuff was.  Let’s start with the bicycle itself.  It’s a Made in China steel frame bicycle with huge oversize tubes whose only purpose is to mimic the large tubes of light, carbon framed road bikes that usually weigh less than 10 kilos.  When you make the same size frame in cheap steel and add on fenders, baskets and the cheapest brand-named accoutrements you think will entice people to buy the bicycle (Shimano RevoShifters and Shimano derailleur/gearset, in my case), you end up with a bicycle weighing somewhere between 18 and 20 kg.  I have to say “somewhere between” because the scale seemed at risk of breaking when I weighed it, so I can’t be too sure…

WP_20160103_21_09_13_Pro__highres.jpgTOP ONE – SHOES, BIKES, WHATEVER YOU WANT, FROM CHINA.  Bike logo reads “Find your soul.” Well, that didn’t work.

Now let’s add up the luggage!

  • Bivy tent – 1.5 kg
  • Sleeping bag – 1.65 kg
  • Fleece blanket and sleeping mat – 1.41 kg
  • Tools/tube etc. – 1.4 kg
  • 20L capacity backpack with hydration pack – 4.7 kg
  • Grand Total – 10.66 kg

Yeah…that’s nearly 30 kg…over half my body weight…if I were to do this again on the same 18 kg beast, I would take only one thing – a credit card in my back pocket.  I understand why “credit card touring” is a phrase.  Anybody riding a 6 gear human-powered locomotive should definitely choose this option when travelling more than 30 km.

But let’s get back to the story.  Hitting the trail that morning meant first pushing those 30 kg up the steep spiral road and ramp to get back onto the bridge.  I had to take a rest on the way up.  By “take a rest” I mean I parked the bike beside the road and went for a very short hike in order to catch a glimpse of one of the fastest currents in Japan,  called “ship-breaker.”  Here’s a photo of the strait off in the distance…

WP_20151229_09_21_40_Pro.jpgFUNAORISETO (ship-breaking current), HAKATAJIMA

Eventually I did get back up onto the bridge.  My muscles were nowhere near recovery – they were busy trying to transition from jelly stage to the full-on ache.  They never got the chance.  I had ‘em warmed up and feeling good in a jiffy, cruising along down the ramp to Oshima.  I knew my legs were shot, but hey, I thought, there are a ton of cafes along the road on Oshima.  I’m gonna stop for a leisurely coffee about halfway through the island, and then it’s just one more bridge before I reach Imabari on Shikoku.  Now, here’s a free Japanese lesson for you.  大島 These two kanji mean “big” and “island.”  I knew that before of course, but I’ve only driven across this island.  When you drive the Shimanami Kaido, you essentially skim over top the highest points of each island.  When you ride the Shimanami Kaido, you only use the same portions of the route as the automobile traffic on the bridges.  Bicycles leave the nice, straight, level highway to ride along the local roads before climbing the ramp and rejoining the bridges on the other end of each island.

On I rode.  I don’t know how many cafés I spotted, closed signs gleaming in the sunlight as I rolled on by, but by the time the slope began, I was more than ready for a stop.  Just a little further, I told myself, and there’s sure to be an open café.

But no…it turns out that Big Island probably also meant Big Vertically High Gigantic Never-ending Slope Island in its original form.  I’ll have to ask around.  I nearly died on Oshima, and that’s no exaggeration.  On the way up, I had no choice but to park the bike beside the road a couple of times and sit down for a break so my legs, lungs, and circulatory system could recover a bit.  Now let’s talk about the mental game.  Imagine you’re on a bicycle.  You pass a throng of high-school aged boys wearing big hiking packs (3/4 empty, but still…) who seem to be hiking at least a portion of the Shimanami.  Good for them, you think.  I wonder how long it will take them to reach Imabari.  On you go….and then you began to sense your heart giving out, so you stop for a rest.  And the throng of young’uns goes by you and your bicycle.  On foot.

As it turned out, the physical and mental struggle up the hill was a mere foreshadowing of my imminent demise.  I reached the crest of the hill in a sort of grim, I-have-conquered-the-mountain-but-must-yet-descend-alive state of mind.  I soon discovered how important this cautious, mindful attitude was.  Down I cruised, the occasional vehicle passing me.  If the cars were going 70 km/h than I would have been going about 50km.  I’ve measured myself at 60 kms/hr on a bicycle before (not this one!!) and this was getting close.  A concrete curb separated the shared foot and bicycle path from the road.  I stayed on the road, knowing the danger of attempting to ride down the footpath with a throng of backpacking kids ahead of me.  Soon I caught up to them, a herd of tired sleepy pheromonal boys running down the steep hill in a mob, almost tripping over their own feet.  Imagine recently tranquilized elephants attempting to stampede.  No, I’m not exaggerating.  My speed increased.  The traffic increased.  Stopping was impossible.  Managing my brakes without glazing them over (if you heat them up too much the rubber hardens and renders them useless ) became my priority.  Suddenly there was a bumper-to-bumper line of trucks and buses and the odd car, locking me and my 30 kg bike into the small space along that pretty blue line and concrete curb.  And then about 5 of the dopey stumbling morons hopped off of the sidewalk and blocked my path.

It was awfully close.  My blazing white and orange and reflective-stickered-garbage-bag get-up was shooting down the steep slope like a cyclist express train to hell, my neon-yellow mini-gloved left hand hitting the bell trigger as often as I could while trying to keep the brake lever at a moderate level so as to not rip the brake pad out of its cheap holder or ruin my steering while trucks flew past about 20 cm from my right shoulder.  I didn’t have enough time to think of something to yell besides the expletives on the tip of my tongue, yet somehow I managed to not yell those, which in hindsight was quite a massive failure on my part.  I’m sure it would have given me much more time.  We had about a 1 second cushion, if that.  I nearly got one boy’s back with my handlebar.  Boys jumping, tires skidding, the last one barely got his dopey arse out of my way and I let go of the brakes to just let that abused bike coast all the way to the stop sign, however many kilometres ahead.  It was either that, or stop and have a serious altercation/freak out with/at a bunch of strangers who in all fairness were probably more exhausted than I was BUT JUST ABOUT KILLED US ALL! This is the sort of thing you figure no one is stupid enough to do, until you see it, and you want to stop and lock the perpetrators up with accident videos and knowledge tests until they’re qualified to walk in public again.  OMG. m_O_m  OMG.  Definitely my closest call in Japan.  Or anywhere…I remember hoping my helmet wouldn’t work so I wouldn’t be paralyzed for the rest of my life…LOL.  Seems funny now.  Kind of.

Oh, and there were still no open cafes.  At that point I figured I’d just been handed another chance at life, so I’d better just keep soldiering on.  After all, there was only one more bridge between me and Imabari…and then I reached the bottom of that bridge, and this is what I saw:

WP_20151229_10_40_05_Pro.jpgYES, THE BRIDGE IS SKY-HIGH AND ENDLESS, BUT WHAT’S A BIT MORE SUFFERING AFTER A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE?WP_20151229_10_44_15_Pro__highres.jpg

The ramp up to the bridge is pretty long and therefore gradual, thankfully, and it really shouldn’t have been too hard, but anyone that’s ever had a terrifying experience will know the physical effect that the adrenalin rush has on you – after it’s done, your body crashes – luckily, only metaphorically.  I met a bunch of Filipinos at the entrance to the bridge.  They stayed at the rest stop and I said goodbye and headed off.  They passed me about five minutes later, on their mama-charis, and I didn’t care one whit.  I didn’t die today.  Whatever. 

The “one last bridge” I referred to above is actually a series of joined suspension bridges called the Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge, which just so happens to be the world’s longest suspension bridge structure.  *maniacal laughter*

Roughly half way along the series is an island called “Horse Island” (Umashima).  Way back when, somebody with too much money and too little brainpower thought raising warhorses on a tiny rocky outcrop was a brilliant idea…obviously, that failed, but the name stuck.  LOL.  I love Japan.  Anyway… people still live on the island, so for scooter and bicycle access (no car access from the bridge) there is actually an ELEVATOR down to the island.  Yes, an elevator.  You take your bike in with you, press down, waaay down, and poof, you’re no longer on a high, cold, windy bridge – you’re on a magical island where it’s warm and sunny!  The Kurushima Strait is also one of Japan’s fast currents, but at this point, do you think I cared?  No.  But there’s picture below.  And so I had a picnic, and then I laid back and had myself a little nap.  I don’t know how long I was there, but you may recall a herd of dopey boys walking along…

WP_20151229_12_19_01_Pro.jpgKURUSHIMA STRAIT

Back up the elevator I went, and rode along the bridge until the shipyard cranes of Imabari loomed up before me.  The descending ramp and the shipyard backdrop is spectacular, to put it mildly.  Anyway, I was taking it slowly and carefully going down the ramp, which was quite busy with foot and bicycle traffic and even a couple with a baby stroller, but of course everyone following the rules of the road…

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Until whom should I see again, but the herd of boys.  Which is fine.  I’d calmed down by this point.  But the complete morons did it AGAIN.  The ramp is about 2 metres wide.  The edges are shoulder high concrete.  And they bunched up and blocked the entire ramp.  Well, I let one expletive out earlier in the day when I nearly died.  I wasn’t going to let this inanity get to me now.  Instead I rang that bell like it was dinnertime and death-glared them on the way by.  Yeah, I’ll show them.  Ding-ding-stare.  LOL.  Should have stopped, cuffed them all on the head and demanded forehead-touching-ground apologies and maybe a case of beer and some firstborn children or something.  But I’m a softie.

Now, my original plan was to spend the afternoon at Imabari onsens and retire to a campground later in the day…but all I could think about was sleeping and getting to Matsuyama.  So I found the campground, pitched my tent, and waited for the sun to set before collapsing.  I should mention that the campground felt quite a bit farther away from the Shimanami Kaido than it looked on the map, and there were absolutely no restaurants or convenience stores nearby, and I ate peanuts and jerky for supper when all I wanted was some proper food…but hey, I wasn’t dead.  Yet.  You gotta look on the bright side.

WP_20151229_14_25_25_Pro.jpgHEY, IT’S THE BRIGHT SIDE!  ROCKS THAT LOOK LIKE WHALES, WOW!

Day 3.  Coming sometime in the near or not-so-near future.

The Great Shimanami Kaido Bikecamping Adventure

Once I decided to live ten feet from the blue line marking the Shimanami Kaido, there was really no question as to whether I would ride the world-famous cycling mecca or not – the only question was when and how.  Last year was a particulary expensive sightseeing year for me – It included two trips to Canada and back and if you tack on the first six months I spent here in Japan, I shudder to even guesstimate any ballpark figure for what I’ve spent on travel….certainly not lost on a girl who grew up poor and therefore obsessively money-conscious in rural Manitoba, in central Canada.

Along came 2016, speeding up on me like a carbon fibre Giant on Tour de France level steroids, and I still hadn’t ridden the entire Shimanami Kaido cycling route, only bits and pieces near my home island of Innoshima.  That’s it, I thought.  I’m spending my December holidays cheaply and wisely.  I’m not going to spend my whole holiday in hotels, and I’m not going to pay highway tolls by driving anywhere.  I’m going to bike the Shimanami!  I had already biked to Onomichi and back from my place, which left only (haha) the other direction – from Innoshima to Imabari and back.  But I felt like I was somehow cheating by not riding the full route at once.  At the same time, I was not willing to spend a night in Onomichi just for the sake of doing the full route at once, as I am often in Onomichi and it holds no allure for me whatsoever at this point.  (Plus, there was the question of what on earth I would do in Imabari for two days while resting before heading back.)  A quick peek at the map of Shikoku revealed that the both larger and more historic city of Matsuyama is a mere 40(ish) kilometers away from Imabari.  Target achieved.  Innoshima to Matsuyama return.  Jitensha de.

I had already invested in a very cheap bivy sack-style tent (anyone with two bits of common sense and camping experience knows that the one piece of equipment you do NOT cut corners on is your tent!) and a cheap bicycle with a few more gears than the school-provided one speed mama-chari (four more gears, to be exact).  To compensate for my obvious flaunting of the above-mentioned common sense, I bought a quality sleeping bag (Snugpak Sleeper Lite, see unsponsored ad later in this story).  See above bit about being Manitoban and if you’ve lived there you’ll understand why I’ve been considering purchasing Merino base layers for quite some time(cue Manitoban winter horror stories).  While planning this trip, a giant markdown/sale at wiggle.co.uk (another unsponsored ad, you’re welcome) provided the perfect excuse to finally put the coin where the thought was.  (And, I may add, free shipping and no customs fees to the middle of nowhere in Japan…)  Finally, after an absurd online spending spree in order to camp for free for probably 20 nights tops in Japan (before I leave the country), which I justify by saying I will definitely be keeping all the things I bought for years and years, (except the bivy tent, which is a little iffy at this point…) this what I ended up with.  Ready to rock’ n’ roll, here I am with my high-tech-meets-dollar-store-ghetto bikecamping equipment fully…equipped.

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Let me just say I consider myself to be in pretty good shape physically.  My cardio endurance is definitely low but my muscle power is there, lungs are okay.  I didn’t anticipate much trouble from this trip other than the lack of sleep from attempting to camp in my CHEAP bivy tent.  I will say this only once: light sleepers should buy proper dome tents, NOT anything even slightly resembling a bivy.  Don’t believe the crap about adjusting to it.  Who has a week to adjust to the noise?  I barely get a week of holidays in total.  Anyway.  I headed off later than I’d planned, around 11:45 a.m. on Monday, December 28th.  About halfway up the ramp to the first bridge, I decided the weight of the loaded bike definitely made the bridges more difficult than they ought to be, and that I would take the 80 yen ferry on my return trip rather than do this particular bridge ramp again (a bridge I often ride across, for the ice cream of course – see previous entries).  I had serious knee problems  in my teens and eventually regained my knee strength, but there is always a question in my mind of whether those tendons will really hold up under pressure or not.  But I was on fresh legs at this point, so I quickly forgot that thought at the ice cream shop on Ikuchijima.  After the ice cream and a few more kilometres riding with a couple of my workmates, who kindly accompanied me for a one-island send-off, we stopped for a lunch break.  Onomichi ramen – mmmmmmmmm good…  Don’t pass up an open ramen shop, or you’ll regret it 15 minutes later.  That may be the most surprising life lesson I’ve learned in Japan.  It was a delicious lunch and afterwards I parted ways with my workmates, to finish the journey alone (of course).

I often cross Ikuchijima Bridge.  I see it every day.  It’s nearly as constant as the sun in my life here.  It’s my favourite of the Shimanami Kaido bridges, and I can’t tell you if it’s coincidental or based on actual logic  – but it seems to be the easiest to cross.  The ramp is very gradual, very short, and the bridge itself is short, completely separated from motor traffic (contrast this with the Innoshima Bridge, where you must share a bike lane with two-way bicycle and scooter traffic!)  And there’s a Sea Salt Ice Cream Shop just a few minutes away. Sorry, I keep regressing.  Sea salt ice cream…

Anyway, Day One of my Shimanami Kaido bikecamping adventure was a breeze. 😉 I crossed the Tatara Bridge to Omishima and quite enjoyed the gradually sloped ramp – once I got onto the bridge, however, the wind got the better of me and I was wishing for Ikuchijima Ohashi…

Passing through Omishima was quick, but as I ascended the ramp to Tatara Bridge, the sun was just beginning to go down, and the bike path was littered with leaves and actual trash (including beer cans) which is quite rare to see on the Shimanami Kaido.  This, combined with the absence of houses near the path, made me uneasy for the first time (as a woman cycling alone).  After riding up this surpisingly creepy path, I was grateful to make it up to the bridge to Hakatajima with no flats.

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My goal for the day (okay, afternoon…) was an uninhabited tiny island between Hakatajima and Oshima which is accessible only by bicycle, scooter, or foot.  Its main attraction?  A free campsite.  I stopped at a convenience store on Hakatajima and bought my supper – sour cream and onion fried chicken (kariage), potato wedges, and a discounted cabbage/onion/kinoki mushroom salad – then ramped myself up to ride that final bridge for the day (see what I did there?).  You’d easily miss Michikajima if you blinked.

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I probably could have just let go of the bicycle and found it at the bottom, but I was a good girl and walked it down nicely, where much to my relief, I found two other tents already set up in the camp-ground. (I did mention I was creeped out by the Omishima ramp, right?)

I set up my little (okay, tiny) bivy-tent and promptly crawled into my sleeping bag, as it got cold instantly once the sun dropped behind the shadow of the island.  I heard someone else pull up (oh English, it was literally down from the ramp…) and set up their tent while I snuggled in and hoped I could actually sleep for 14 hours until the next sunrise after doing hardly anything all day.  And then the wind picked up. And up, and up.  And slapped my cheap-ass Doppelganger Pupa ST-01 (or something) around like it was a sail on a sinking ship.  So I put my earplugs in, because I was prepared for this after my test run in warmer weather revealed that A: It is impossible to set this tent up so that the sides are held taut like a proper wind-resistant tent should be and B: There will be heavy condensation in this tent no matter what the temperature or airflow because it is fully waterproofed nylon (AKA PLASTIC-COATED – THANKS A LOT YOU LYING ADVERTISING MOFOS TENTS ARE NOT MADE OF PLASTIC, THEY’RE MADE OF BREATHABLE NYLON FOR A REASON).  And I carefully laid my (actually breathable and waterproof) ski jacket over-top my (fantastic, amazing synthetic Snugpak SleeperLite) sleeping bag which I absolutely love to protect against my pathetic tent’s inadequacies.  But it’s okay, I got over that a long time ago (clearly) because I only paid about $60 for it and it has aluminum poles.  (And aluminum camping-anything is good.  As we all know.)

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It was a long night.  When sun sets around 5 p.m. and you’re not tired, and your tent is the approximate size and shape of a body bag, there is nothing you can do but curl up with your hokkairo (um, hand warmer packs?Is there a normal English expression for these things?) and your clothes stuffed into a pillowcase and try to sleep while PLASTICATED NYLON (err I mean “breathable waterproof nylon”sic) flaps violently mere inches from your face and you wonder exactly how you would exit your tent/bivy sack/body bag if there was a storm surge because you forgot to pack your jackknife and then you think, hey, who needs water, I might just blow away in my sail tent.  But you watched the news when the 2011 tsunami hits so generally you just think hey, if Edmond Dantes could get out of a stitched up body bag after getting heaved off the edge of the Chateau d’If (in a novel but it’s based on a true story so I don’t discount it entirely :p) than I should stand a chance of unzipping two zippers provided I have enough air in my lungs to float after exiting the thing (because you won’t know which way is up, which is how people often drown – swimming down thinking that it’s up in the dark water).  And then, because you aren’t tired after mentally preparing for one-in-a-zillion chance disasters (but you should anyways, just in case, so you aren’t that one extra statistic), your kidneys continue working and you have to manage the contortionist bivy-tent/sleeping bag/extra blanket exit while keeping your cell phone, flash-light and keys/safety whistle all with you and attempting to contain any heat within your sleeping bag while you’re gone.

Oh, and by the way, your sleeping bag zipper is on the opposite side from your bivy-tent exit, so good luck sucker. LOL.  I wish there was video.  Imagine Jim Carrey exiting the rhino in Ace Ventura Pet Detective.  I feel like that every time I exit that thing.  Someone wanna mail me a Jim Carrey mask, and I’ll do the whole scene verbatim?

Anyway.  I slept in fits and starts, and the next morning I woke up and I ate THIS for breakfast, because this, my friends, THIS is the breakfast of champions.  Forget Tony the Tiger and remember THIS:

WP_20151229_11_35_22_Pro.jpgSalad.  Peanuts.  Octopus jerky.  Oranges.  And coffee.  But when you’re bikepacking you don’t have room for kettles and  coffeemakers and all that civilized crap like antiperspirant and Tensor wraps and Tylenol and other stuff that you would normally have with you…but I digress.  You have room for the hydration bladder in your backpack, and a few packets of instant coffee…

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One big mouthful of water.  Dump that packet in there with the water.  Swish a tiny bit and make faces before swallowing it as quickly as you can and hoping no one actually witnessed how cheap and/or desperate you are to get your coffee fix.  I couldn’t have survived without it.

Shimanami Kaido Day 2 tales coming soon (or whenever I feel like it.)

 

 

 

 

Oh France, French, my first love. Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?

France has declared its first national emergency since I was there in 2005. No, you cynical being, I had nothing to do with it.

But even those who know me best, or think they do, likely aren’t aware that back then, during my first solo trip overseas, I was in fact on a recon mission.  For what?

French was my first love, courtesy of a mother who taught me simple French from a young age, played French radio at home, watched French movies and even passed on her old French school songbooks and textbooks to me from her time living in Montréal.

And so eventually I dreamed of moving to France and living there for a time.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that France is not the paradise of “Liberté, fraternité, égalité” it claims to be (aspires to be might be a more realistic view, but hey, if you’re gonna sing an anthem calling all those Frenchmen to arms so that impure, invading non-French blood can water your land, let’s keep the motto as positive as we can, eh?)  The segregation of immigrants and low-income Parisiens to the suburbs was evident before the riots began, problems endemic for decades (or longer?) seemed clear as day to me, just a naive Canadian girl off to see the world.  When I visited Madrid and walked through Atocha Station, still under reconstruction from its 2004 bombing, flowers still laying wreathed in places, the recon mission was already over.  Europe would not fulfill my childhood dream of living in another country.  The evidence was too stark and blatant, burned out buses passing before my face as I rode the train out of Paris and broken subway systems with invisible target symbols all over them.  It was not easy to let this dream die, but it did.

My study of French died with the dream.  Life happened.  And here, ten years later, I find myself watching the news of one secretly xenophobic country from another.  Before I read the article I admit I thought to myself, “Not moving there was a good choice, self.”  And as I read the article I looked at the pictures and thought “Le Carillon looks an awful lot like the bar I ate and drank at while I stayed near Métro République, alongside the Canal Saint-Martin.”  And so I checked the map, and checked again.  And so it was.  How nice it was to sit there sipping coffee, people-watching from the little tables on the street, to stare out at the night while nursing a drink.  Damn, that was close enough.

Back then however, there was discussion about immigration and racism and integration.  Now?  It’s not really about a specific race is it?  Or is it?

Cooler heads never prevail, and so next year I’ll be moving back to a place with fewer heads than here.  The odds are better.

Doing a triathlon Shitamizu-style

It’s a Sunday afternoon.  The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and only a few wisps of cloud hang above the gleaming white suspension bridge that ties Ikuchijima to Innoshima.  I can see the cyclists whizzing across it from my window.  And naturally that sight leads to the thought of – Ice cream.  I can already taste the Sea Salt and Milk ice cream sliding down my throat, accompanied by a chorus of angels…

Of course there’s other things that I need to do today, but how long could it possibly take to do a quick 10 km bike ride, scarf down an ice cream and ride back?  No problem.

I head out.  It’s hot but there’s a magnificent breeze, and I’m wearing a new T-shirt designed for exercising and made out of magical fibres which don’t absorb sweat but allow any hint of breeze to go right through, while being completely opaque.  (The type of clothing I should have had last year for my first hot-as-hell-if-it-existed-and-was-a-sauna-Japanese-summer.)  The climb up to the bridge feels much easier than last time, likely due to the breeze.  My rusty old mama-chari is handling magnificently.  I trust it now – after doing some large downhills and not losing grip or parts on the way, I’m confident I’ll be over to the ice cream shop and back to my apartment in two hours tops.  All the same, I did bring along a pump and a flat repair kit.  But as I said, I was confident!  As confident as I am in anything.

I arrive at the ice cream shop about 10 kms later but I haven’t even broken a sweat.  Niiice.  It’s a glorious day.  The parking lot however, is discouraging.  Despite the shop having seating for only about thirty patrons, the parking lot is gargantuan – and right now, it is full.  Not just full of tiny shiny small-displacement cars, but also several pelatons’ worth of bicycles, a handful of motorcycles and scooters, and the accompanying overspill of people who can’t actually fit into the café and are hauling their treats outside to eat.  Whatever, I think. I just got warmed up.  I’m goin’ to the beach, baby.  See ya later, ice cream shop.  It’s only another 10 kms or so, and the day is young.  I’ll hit you up on the way back.

I get to the beach…it’s great!  Except I don’t have a swimsuit, so I just wade along in the water for awhile until I’m bored.  Then, still trying to reconcile my time wastage to myself, I pull out my Japanese assignment and practice reading it out loud while I dry off and soak in more extremely strong and unhealthy UV rays.  But by now my brain is pretty much done for.  I’ve had enough rays already.  Physical activity only please.  I get back on the bike and head back.

As I approach the ice cream shop I’m feeling pretty good, but also very relieved I’m so close to home at this point.  Only 10 more kms to go after my heavenly salty ice cream. Mmmm.

I park the trusty mama-chari, leave it unlocked with my $15 eBay-from-China-pannier-bags on it, containing my pump and flat repair kit that I’m confident I don’t need, and waltz into Dolce (Doh-ru-chi in Japanese pronunciation) like I own the place.  Yeah, I’m risqué that way.

The parking lot is nearly empty in comparison.  I can see a few spare chairs inside and thank the sunset for signaling the end of the weekend and getting rid of all the cyclists so I can collapse in the air conditioned glory with my Sea Salt and Milk ice cream.  As if my wild curly hair wouldn’t set me apart enough already, I’m wearing a bright red shirt and black shorts.  I’ve been feeling myself cook for about 45 minutes by this point.  The spray-on sunscreen probably worked for about 20 minutes.  My face and hair feels like it’s been sandblasted and hair sprayed simultaneously.  I imagine myself looking like a sort of red-faced goblin that’s arisen from the depths of Kosanji Temple’s underground Buddhist hell display for a quick break before going back to my 24-7 job of torturing and mutilating.

Just as I review how to order my ice cream in Japanese, one of my students pops up from behind the ice cream counter and starts speaking English to me.  All I can do is blink and try to reset my brain. Jeez, girl.  Are you trying to throw me out of my groove (that I didn’t actually have but had just convinced myself I could fake)?  At the same time, am I ever glad.  I get what I want extremely quickly and I got to see a friendly familiar face (that happens to be attached to a very sweet heart).  Nice.

While I’m eating, I again review my Japanese, still trying to atone for going the extra (20) mile(s). Yeah kms. Whatever. I’m Canadian and we talk like that due to our metric-Imperial conversion-confusion.  If you don’t understand that, don’t worry.  Neither do we.  Also while I’m eating, I notice my hands are a bit shaky.  Hmm. Touch of sunstroke perhaps?  Sitting in full sun on the beach was probably not wise…

Whatever!  I had my magic ice cream and now I feel invincible!!!  Off I go, out of the restaurant.  The rusty mama-chari (and my bags) are still there, waiting.  (I mean really, who would actually steal it. Come on…)  I head off.  Whoo hoo!  I imagine my rear tire feels soft and look down to check it but no, it’s perfectly fine.  I told you I was confident.

I’m getting relatively close to the ramp back on to the bridge when I see a gaggle of children and bikes and puppies on the sidewalk ahead of me.  Could that be any cuter?  There are two puppies with leads attached to their collars, and for some reason (or none) the kids are chasing them instead of just picking up the end of the leashes.  Doesn’t bother me, except I’m approaching quickly and don’t  want to add puppy-killer to my resume.  Just as I consider leaving the sidewalk for the narrow, no-room-for-slow-bikes road, the cute-parade divides.  One puppy veers into the road and the children immediately begin panicking.  The other puppy busts out its extra gear and leaves the kids in the dust.

My sensei-senses kick in and I put my foot down.  (Literally.)  I bend down, smile and reach out to the puppy and it runs over to me like I’ve been it’s best friend for ages.  One caught.  Three seconds later and the other puppy has also run over to us.  Ten seconds and the kids are there and apologizing, and collecting leashes.  On I go, thrilled by the cute little puppies and proud of my dog whispering skills.  And then I think, hey, my rear tire sure seems soft…

Really soft.  5psi soft.

I hop off.  I just ate Sea Salt ice cream and caught two puppies bare-handed.  Plus, I have a pump and flat kit.  I laugh in the face of shattered confidence.  Ha.ha.ha.

It’s not just a tube problem.  There are cords sticking out of the tire, which is worn completely bald down the centre of the tire.  At this point I ask myself why have I not noticed this before?  But, I pump ‘er up and set out.  It must have been a slow leak.

Ha.ha.ha.  Twenty feet, flat again.  I try once more.  For scientific purposes it’s best to give these things two chances.  I notice chunks of rubber missing elsewhere along the tire.  Oh my…

And so I begin walking the bike, up to the bridge.  About twenty minutes in to the hike, some freaky black and orange tarantula-nittoru-na kumo skitters across the road in front of me and hides in a giant weed across the road from me.  Sweeeeet lord what was that.  It was so dang big I thought it was a crab at first.

You know how in horror movies people always have to just go check out what that noise was?  I finally understand that ridiculous, foolish compulsion.  While most of my being wants to jump on the bike and grind sparks out of the rear rim as I get the frick away from the mystery tarantula that could kill me at any moment, for some reason I instead stop and take out my cell phone for a picture.  Then, thankfully, a scooter whips past me and recalls me to my senses.  I pick up the pace and the heck out of there.  Sorry, no picture.  What if it got me?  OMG.  I’m sweating just picturing being close to it.  Ughhh. Spiders….Big spiders…..shudder.

The rest of the trip takes an hour.  I cross the bridge listening to the fwwwiip-swiiipe-fwwwiip-swiiipe of the flat going round and round, occasionally smashing my ankle or knee into the pedal and cheerfully replying “Konnichiwa!” to every passing cyclist doing their cheerful duty.

And that was that.  The only triathlon I’ll ever do:  Bike/Wade/Bicycle-push.

Tackling the profundities of English pronunciation…

I occasionally take it upon myself to pick an aspect of English pronunciation and wage a private war on its behalf.  When I first started here, it was the confusion of “b”s and “v”s that I nitpicked at.  (There is no V sound in Japanese)  There was also the war against “r” and “l” confusion.  That is a really a tough one (in Japanese the character romanized as “ra” can sound like la, da, or ra.  There is no L sound).  It feels pretty good to hear the difference in the students’ speech-their vocabulary is quite good but it tends to come out mangled and sometimes unintelligible due to inability to produce the right sounds (or even know what sound to aim for).  Lately I’ve been picking at the mispronunciation of “th” (again, there is no TH sound in Japanese) as it usually comes out as “s-hu” – for example, “three” comes out as “suhree” (if you can imagine that as one syllable).

Today I had a particularly fun small battle against the Mispronunciation of the Short Double-O Sound.  English is not exactly the simplest language in the world to learn pronunciation from its spelling (there are arguments it’s not phonetically spelled at all but I disagree.  and digress…)  It seems that students here rarely get corrected when they read a short double-o sound as a long one.  For example, try using the same vowel sound in “balloon” and “moon” when you say “book” and “cook”.

“Who is she?”  I asked, while holding a flashcard of a woman in a chef’s uniform.

“She’s a kook!” Cried four tiny voices in unison.

I don’t think we can tell that much about her personality from the tiny picture on the flashcard.  So I explained to them that a kook and a cook are two different things-they loved hearing what a kook is.  They practiced the short double-o until I figured they had it down pat, and then ff we went through the other set of flashcards until up popped the chef again.  “Who is she?”  I asked

“She’s a cock!”

Well, they tried.  I didn’t feel the need to explain the meaning of that one.