A Tale of Two Suzies.

Hamamatsu, Japan. 25th November 2014.

It rained. Then rained some more. And then in case I wasn’t quite convinced that it was a wet day, it poured down. Hang the expense, I headed straight for the Expressway. I just couldn’t face dealing with over 200kms of towns and traffic lights on such a day. So when I found my hotel in Hamamatsu I went into the well established routine of turning the heater on full blast and spreading my gear around the room to dry. I expected it all to be OK by the morning. Except the gloves. I didn’t expect those two sodden lumps of leather ever to be dry again. At least not in my lifetime.
Sadako-San had rung ahead to book me a visit to Suzuki Plaza, the factory museum. It was necessary to make a reservation although it was free. It wasn’t far away from my hotel although the factory complex surprised me by being tucked away between some railway lines. Nothing too glamourous about its location.

Doris comes home.

Doris comes home.

Be that as it may, the visit was very well worth it. Michio Suzuki was a carpenter who couldn’t get work because of the Russo-Japan war. So in 1909 he started making weaving looms, considered to be a lowly occupation at that time. He kept on improving his products but the business really took off when he invented a double shuttle mechanism which revolutionised the production of checked cloth. More improvements led to more success over the years.

Double Shuttle weaving loom. I knew it looked familiar!

Double Shuttle weaving loom. I knew it looked familiar!

Post WW2, wanting to take advantage of the growing demand for personal transport, he developed an auxiliary engine for bicycles, then developed complete motorcycles. Onwards and upwards, continuing to expand his product range into cars, light vans/trucks and outboard motors. He and his engineers seemed to be very good at spotting growth areas and developing products to fill them. I’m not sure, but I don’t believe they make weaving looms any more.

Bicycle with auxiliary engine.

Bicycle with auxiliary engine.

The museum is chock full of examples of everything the factory has ever produced. Of course all the bikes were very interesting but so were the small cars and trucks, as were the examples of future vehicle development – electric cars and bikes etc. There was a section showing how a vehicle is designed and modelled before going into production, including some cut-aways and some full scale clay models. There were plenty of school kids looking around this section. The next generation of Japanese engineers maybe?

Fully motorised bicycle. Sales of 4,000 units per month was pretty good.

Fully motorised bicycle. Sales of 4,000 units per month was pretty good.

The museum was very well laid out with dual language signs and soundtracks to the videos. I came away from there feeling proud to own a Suzuki! Doris felt right at home too.

Tokyo to Paris survivor. I could relate to that.

Tokyo to Paris survivor. I could relate to that.

Early cars. Two stroke, three cylinder, front wheel drive.

Early cars. Two stroke, three cylinder, front wheel drive.

A fine collection of racing bikes.

A fine collection of racing bikes.

One for the future?

One for the future?

A longish ride next day, to Osaka. So I got up early and got organised. Here’s a question. Do Sat Navs have a mind of their own? I think mine does. I was on the Expressway and rode past an exit to a different Expressway which was signed for Osaka, but which the Sat Nav hadn’t told me to take. Then it decided it meant to after all so it took me off the Expressway at the next exit and onto an ordinary road. After which it promptly tried to take me back on again! I ignored that instruction, Sat Nav had a rethink, then decided to take me straight on and we came to a road for Osaka which was a toll free Expressway. I was delighted. All’s well that ends well, but I’m sure there’s a ghost in the machine!
I wonder what would have happened if I’d followed that first sign for Osaka? What actually did happen was that a few kilometres down Route 25 my front tyre suddenly deflated, the bike went into a horrendous tankslapper and two seconds later I was sliding down the road on my arse! The truck behind me swerved and avoided me but just caught the rear end of the bike, punching it along the road a bit further before screeching to a halt. I was up on my feet in double quick time in case there was another vehicle coming down in my lane. The trucker was out of his cab very quickly too and helped me pick the bike up, ranting at me in the meantime. He calmed down when he realised I was OK and when I showed him my flat tyre. It all happened right next to an emergency pull in so we got the bike in there and everybody drove on. Except me. I was perfectly OK, not even bruised. But poor old Doris looked a bit worse for wear after her 90 kph slide down the road.

Rear mudguard busted.

Rear mudguard busted.

I walked around the bike and took stock. Some items were damaged but nothing that was going to prevent me riding on, fortunately. All I had to do was repair the puncture. When I got the tube out of the tyre I could see that it had let go in a big way. There was a big tear in the inner tube almost as if someone had got a knife and cut a lump out. No wonder it went down instantly. Remember, this was the new tube that got fitted in Russia, not all that long ago. Cheap Chinese crap. Oh well, nothing to do but repair my spare tube, fit it and carry on.
I’d finished the repair and was just putting the wheel back in when a police patrol turned up in a van, big enough to fit my bike in. It seems someone had called them when they saw me come off. I got them to help me refit the wheel then set about re-securing everything ready to go. Not so fast! Having been kind enough to help me out the police now reverted to type and told me I couldn’t ride on the Expressway because I didn’t have a Japanese number plate. ‘Not safe’ one of them told me. I think he probably meant ‘Not legal’. He said I’d have to come off the Expressway and travel on the ordinary road. But I was ready for him! I flourished my carnet with its Japanese Customs stamps, my Japanese insurance certificate and, finally, the printed off copies of my IDP. The poor guy didn’t stand a chance and conceded defeat without a fight. I was free to carry on. They kindly put my old tube in their rubbish bag and waved me away, smiling.
Sae had told me of some places to visit in and around Osaka but in the end I didn’t really feel like it. I needed to deal with the after effects of my body/bike/baggage co-efficient of friction experiment. The report needed writing up. The science community couldn’t be kept waiting! You can translate that as meaning that I needed to spend the time fixing my bike and organising some replacements for the damaged parts. Somehow it managed not to rain for the next two days so I was able to get stuck in with glue, cable ties and gaffer tape and make everything reasonably presentable and waterproof once more.

Right side pannier, not very waterproof now.

Right side pannier, not very waterproof now.

Broken parts included the rear light, bottom section of the mudguard, and number plate. Missing, presumed squashed, was the extra rear light I’d fitted and the reflector off the mudguard. Heroically wounded was the right hand pannier, some other bags attached to it and the RH tank pannier. My riding jacket had a huge tear in the right arm and ditto the trousers in the right leg. So, to summarise, a poor quality £10 inner tube was looking to cost me around £1,300. I was seriously pissed off!
I ‘borrowed’ some rubbish bags from the hostel and put them inside the pannier. I had been given a very thick plastic bag by one of the policemen to put inside my tank pannier (still in use now in fact). The impact from the truck had caused a securing bolt for the rear luggage rack to pull through the plastic mudguard and I didn’t have anything large enough to pad it out. So I walked around the streets near the hostel looking for something to use. In the end I made a spacer out of the bottom of a tin that hot coffee from the vending machines comes in. It worked a treat and is still there now. Fortunately I have friends in New Zealand who were happy to let me use their address to have some replacement panniers sent to, as well as some items from the UK which would replace other damaged parts. Recovery from a damaging incident was well under way.
My onward plans also needed some attention so I took the opportunity to contact the Korean shipping agent whose details I ‘d got from the Horizons Unlimited website. Wendy Choi was very helpful and I was able to firm up my plans to the extent that I could go as far as buying my plane ticket from Seoul to Auckland. I finalised my booking with DBS Ferries too. This proved to be an expensive and bureaucratic exercise. I had to pay for the privilege of riding on their roads and also for insurance. None of which was cheap. In fact a bike cost more to insure than a small car. It was necessary to supply the ferry company with copies of my IDP, not yet received but I had the scanned pages. No IDP, no ferry ride. These things are never simple are they?
As a break from all this spanner and lap top work I did have a ride out to look at the floating Kansai Airport, one of Japan’s modern marvels, but I didn’t fancy paying the toll to get along the road leading to it. I found a fifty five storey hotel close by and went up to the 50th floor, thinking I’d get a good view of it from there. Thick mist covered the bay. Oh well. I can take a hint and decided it was time to move on.

Fairly nondescript bike shop.

Fairly nondescript bike shop.

I was heading to Nagoya to call on Tsuyochi, a guy I’d met at the hostel in Berlin. It wasn’t far from Osaka so I kept to the ordinary roads at first, enjoying the sunshine. I was desperate for some chain lube. My automatic chain oiler had packed up and my very, very worn out chain needed some TLC. I stopped at a bike shop but they didn’t sell any. However the guy there did come out and lube my chain for me. How kind! Further on I came to another small, one man bike shop. I asked him if he had any lube and he said yes but would I mind waiting until he’d finished servicing the scooter he was working on. No problem. I sat around a bit, reflecting on how good it was to find people working on a Sunday but also sorry for them that it seemed to be necessary. After a while I wandered round the shop and was surprised to find it crammed with race bikes. About five racing bikes and four road going Bimota race replicas, amongst which was a track ready Ducati. What kind of a well kept racing secret had I stumbled on here? It turned out the owner was Ohita Makoto, who raced Bimotas in Japan under the team name of Funky Mates. On the front of one of the bikes was a winner’s trophy from a race at Suzuka circuit in 2003.

Lovely Bimotas tucked away inside.

Lovely Bimotas tucked away inside.

One of his friends turned up on his BMW GS and once Ohita had finished servicing the scooter he made coffee and we sat around and chatted. At one point his wife and seven year old son came past and he said ‘Good morning’ to me. How cute. I was happy to buy some chain lube from Ohita and he also supplied me with a much needed spare front inner tube. This one had Dunlop on the box and although it may still have been made in China, at least the name gave me some confidence that it wouldn’t explode at high speed!

Ohita Makoto with race winning bike and trophy. But glory days pass on. Time to earn a living.

Ohita Makoto with race winning bike and trophy. But glory days pass on. Time to earn a living.

Eventually I took to the Expressway and when I stopped at the services I was amazed to see about ten Honda CB750’s roll in. All of them were in pristine and original condition and looked fabulous. It was clear they’d been restored to a very high standard. Even though I was walking around them, taking photos, I was disappointed that none of the riders came over to talk to me. Japanese bikers are like that although I’m not sure why. Natural shyness?

Honda CB750. Restored to a very high standard.

Honda CB750. Restored to a very high standard.

I hadn’t booked any accommodation in Nagoya. I was assuming I’d be able to stay with Tsuyochi. Sleep on his floor, if nothing else. Unfortunately not possible. When I saw his tiny flat I could understand why. Not only was it just a one room apartment, it had boxes and boxes of CD’s and DVD’s stacked floor to ceiling. Tsuyochi is a Peter Gabriel fanatic. He collects everything he’s ever recorded, of any kind from everywhere, and he spends all of his holiday time travelling to different cities around the world to see him in concert. That’s why he was in Berlin when I was. In fact he recently lost his job for daring to take holiday time to do so. It seems that having an interest outside that of your company is still frowned on in Japan, for single men at least. I could relate to it all as I’m very close to someone who feels the same way about Eric Clapton. But she’s not quite so single minded as she shares her affections with her football club too.

Tsuyochi and me.

Tsuyochi and me.

Tsuyochi said his flat was bigger than those of many who live and work in cities such as Tokyo. The room was about two metres by four, and he had a separate kitchen and bathroom too. How any kind of flat could get any smaller was beyond my imagination.
So I needed a place to stay. We went on the internet and located a small hotel in the centre of the city. Cheap, small rooms. Not en-suite but with the usual hot plate water heater, so good enough for a couple of nights. Mitsunori-San had very kindly forwarded my IDP to Tsuyochi. It had arrived at their place an hour after I’d left so finally I had this all important document in my hand.
I’ve mentioned already the difficulty of finding addresses in Japan. The internet gave us the hotel’s address but even Tsuyochi, Japanese and in his home city, couldn’t find it. The address took us to roughly where it was but then he had to ask around. It wasn’t in the street named but was nearby. No wonder my GPS mapping struggles! I don’t stand a chance.
Tsuyochi and I found a cheap place to eat that evening and the next afternoon he showed me around the city centre. There were some nice buildings and shops to look around and I wanted to post some stuff back home, so he helped me with that and also with getting some paperwork printed off. We found another cheap place for a meal that evening too and once again I was pleased at how easy it is to find good, tasty food at these quick service restaurants.

One of Nagoya's more striking buildings.

One of Nagoya’s more striking buildings.

Tsuyochi is a very nice guy and I enjoyed chatting to him about life, the universe and everything. He hopes to get work in Italy, where I believe he may have a young lady tucked away somewhere. He was a bit coy about that! He speaks excellent English as well as Italian, and I hope everything works out well for him. It’s one of the gret things about travelling, the way that chance meetings can develop into friendships.
But I needed to move on. Sae had put me in touch with an old friend of hers, from university, and he’d invited me to stay over. He lived in a small town near the Suzuka race circuit. It wasn’t very far away from Nagoya and I was there by lunchtime.
Hiroshi is a chef in a restaurant which serves Matsusaka beef. This is considered to be one of the top three types sold in Japan. It comes only from female cattle, who enjoy a beer stimulated diet, massages and music therapy. Who could resist an offer to eat such soulfully raised food?
So once I’d changed out of my riding gear we headed down to his restaurant where I was introduced to everybody. This is another meal that’s cooked where you eat it. In the middle of the table is a gas fired barbequeue. The meat, covered in a sauce, is cut into thin strips and is delivered  to you raw. You put it on the griddle and cook it to your taste. It comes with rice, salad and sauce and was absolutely delicious.
We chatted away while we ate. Hiroshi’s father used to wok for Honda and he spent his childhood in various foreign countries. Crucially, he spent five years at high school in America so speaks excellent American English. He says he hasn’t spoken it for twenty years but you’d never guess. He changes his job every three years or so in order to learn new cooking skills. His ambition is to open his own restaurant. He agreed with me when I reckoned he wouldn’t be seeing much of his family after that. I’ve noticed that the Japanese work very long hours and business owners even longer.

Suzuka Circuit main entrance.

Suzuka Circuit main entrance.

After lunch we went down to the nearby Suzuka circuit. It would normally have cost 1,700 Yen to go inside but Hiroshi rang up an old friend who worked there and she came out to take us inside as her guests. Yuko used to work at a restaurant with Hiroshi but now she’s a recruitment officer for the circuit. Outside of the circuit proper is a large themed funfair, great for families and, no doubt, for profits. As we walked under the tunnel into the circuit itself I must admit I felt a bit of a thrill. These places have a certain aura, even on non race days.

A thrilling place for any petrol head.

A thrilling place for any petrol head.

Yuko took us up into the grandstand where seats for a big race would cost over £300. There were some cars on the circuit but they were only car club members who’d hired it for a race day. We walked down to the pits as well, and although there was nothing much happening there it wasn’t hard to imagine what they’d be like on a race day. Suzuka hosts Formula 1 cars, Moto GP and the famous Suzuka Eight Hours Motorcycle Endurance Race. I could quite easily picture Ohita Makoto hurtling along the start finish straight on his Bimota.

Yuko and me.

Yuko and me.

Back at Hiroshi’s house I was introduced to his wife, Haruna, and his three young boys as they came in from school. Ruca – 10, Kiwa – 8, Itaki – 5. They were full of fun and laughter. Hiroshi had prepared some questions in English for them to ask me, which helped to break the ice. He then prepared a fabulous Sushi meal, helped by the two older boys. I got the impression they were keen to learn their father’s skills. Itaki got me involved in one of the games on his tablet in the meantime.

I love Kiwa really.

I love Kiwa really.

After eating we played some card games and an amusing word game that I played with Kiwa. He would say a Japanese word and I had to say a word in English that began with the letter with which his word ended. The loser was whichever of us first used a word that ended in N. It seems there are no Japanese words, except proper nouns, that start with N. I lost several times. Hiroshi was keen to see some of my photos of Japan, especially the food I’d eaten, and also of Sae’s parents, whom he’d never met.
Next morning, before I left, I went with Hiroshi to his kids’ school where the two older boys were running in the annual race around some nearby streets. In was blustery and cold but Hiroshi and Haruna were pleased because it seems the boys massively improved on their places compared to last year.

After I’d packed and changed they led me out to a petrol station next to the Expressway that would take me onwards.

Fun, friendly and affectionate. A lovely family.

Fun, friendly and affectionate. A lovely family.

It had been a fabulous visit with a great family. Hiroshi and Haruna were wonderful hosts and I loved meeting their kids and enjoying the family love, affection and fun that was flowing around.

Naval Gazing.

Yasakusa, Japan. 22nd November 2014.

My journey from the mountain to the sea was straightforward and good fun. After my ride through the national park, with its great views of Mount Fuji,the road took me down to the coast. On a lovely, sunny Saturday there were loads of bikes out and I even got a few of my waves returned. Very rare in Japan. The road which bypassed the towns ran alongside the sea and was a real pleasure to be on. At one point I came up behind a guy riding an old Harley. He gave me a lesson on how to get through the traffic, Japan style. It seems that going up the inside of queues is the way to do it. Until that is, you get spotted by a copper! My Harley riding compatriot had turned off and the policeman was waiting the other side of the junction. He waved me in and asked me if I spoke Japanese. When I said no, he mustered up his best English and said something about keeping in the lane. I agreed to do so and he told me to ‘Safely ride’. I said I would and off I went. Phew!
The feeling that I had got away with it didn’t last long. I pulled up at a 7-11 for a coffee and when I came out the front tyre was flat. But all was not lost as there was a bike shop on the other side of the street. I went over there and managed to get the young guy to understand that I wanted my puncture repaired and also that it needed doing straight away if possible. They were happy to oblige and got stuck in. I asked them about fitting a new tube but they didn’t have one, being a shop that mostly dealt with scooters. The repair was completed in short order and I carried on, 3,000 Yen poorer. Ouch! Still, instant service on a Saturday is always going to cost.
Once in Yasakusa I rang up Sae’s Dad and he insisted I meet him at the station. Once I was there I could see why as I had to push my bike across a pedestrian only level crossing and along the pavement to their apartment block. It was the easiest way to get there from a practical point of view. With my bike tucked around the back and a notice on it to confirm it was meant to be there, I was taken up to their 11th floor apartment, which overlooks the bay.

In the dock of the bay. US Navy ship

In the dock of the bay. US Navy ship

Yasakusa is a naval town. It houses both Japanese and American bases and there is close cooperation between the two navies. From the apartment window I could see American ships and Japanese submarines. Way out in the distance was a container port. Sae’s Dad, Mitsunori-San, started his career in the navy as an officer cadet and by the time he retired was a Vice Admiral in the submarine fleet. I asked him if he missed his work and he said absolutely not. By the time he retired he’d had enough of the pressure and the politics. Despite having an apartment which enables him to keep and eye on what’s going on, he’s not a lonely old salt missing the sea. For a start, he’s too busy. He’s President of the local Rotary club and is also on the committee which runs the Togo Shrine. More on that later.

Japanese sub moored opposite the US ship. Just as well they're friends these days!

Japanese sub moored opposite the US ship. Just as well they’re friends these days!

Sae’s Mum, Sadako-San, currently keeps herself busy by running doll making classes for American Navy Officer’s wives. It’s a craft she’s very good at, judging by the examples in their apartment, and she says it keeps her busy, helps her practice her English and she then helps the ladies learn some Japanese. She and Mitsunori-San both speak good English, which made my time there very enjoyable and interesting.
For dinner that evening I sampled another traditional Japanese dish, Suki Yaki. This was cooked at the table by Mitsunori-San, which seems to be the tradition. It consists of thin strips of beef cooked in a wok type frying pan over a small gas stove. In went Soy Sauce, juice of some kind (possibly wine), mushrooms, vegetables and lots of what I though was salt but thankfully turned out to be sugar. It was delicious and I was happy to eat plenty of it, with my chopsticks of course. They were quite impressed that I had my name engraved on them too.
We had been watching Sumo Wrestling on the TV earlier and Mitsunori-San printed off some information for me to read. It was from this that I learned all about the way wrestlers are trained and how they achieve their ranking. The sport has its roots in combat but became more of a ritual and then a sport in the Edo period.It is also related to ancient Shinto rituals. It only takes place in Japan although many wrestlers come from Mongolia and Korea. So far so Asian but currently one of the best wrestlers is actually Bulgarian.

The wall outside the Sumo Museum.

The wall outside the Sumo Museum.

The national Championship takes place in a stadium in Tokyo, next to the Sumo museum that I visited. It runs for fifteen days and the wrestler who wins the most bouts wins the tournament. There are six divisions of professional wrestlers and the higher the wrestler sits, the more pay they get. They all belong to stables and take Sumo names. They have to grow their hair so it can be formed into a topknot and they must wear traditional Japanese clothes in public. Like many sportsman they have their fans and detractors.
The bout is won by whichever wrestler forces his opponent to either step out of the ring or to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the sole of his foot. Bouts are usually over quite quickly but can go on for several minutes. As the competition progresses towards the final stages the wrestlers are more evenly matched and bouts do take much longer. There are even rules about breaks being taken during the bout, something I was surprised to learn given how quickly they seem to finish.
There is a huge amount of ritual attached to the sport and this is most obvious while the wrestlers are in the ring. All the crouching, stamping and salt throwing has ancient origins although some of the crouching down then getting up again is simply due to nerves, or maybe gamesmanship. In any event, neither of the wrestlers can launch themselves at their opponent until they have both crouched down with both hands touching the floor. There’s lots more info on Wikipedia if you’re interested in seeking it out.
So learning all this made watching it on the TV much more interesting. I was enjoying the intricacies of it all and I even picked a favourite whom I wanted to win the championship. He didn’t, sadly.
Sunday 23rd November is Thanksgiving in Japan and is a very important day in the calender. Possibly the most important. It is correctly called Niinamesai, literally “Celebrations of the First Taste” and part of a series of Asian harvest rites. Officially, it is the day the Emperor makes the season’s first offering of rice crop to the deities. The ritual is one of the most important for the Emperor and is the most important in the Shinto religion, since the Emperor’s gesture displays gratitude for a good crop on behalf of the entire population. Even in 21st-century Japan, the Niinamesai ritual remains important. It is also known as Labour Thanksgiving Day and is a national public holiday. Mitsunori-San is one of the senior officials of the Togo Shrine, which is in Tokyo. It is dedicated to Admiral Togo. More about him later.

Joining the priesthood.

Joining the priesthood.

Three different trains took us to the nearest station and when we got there I was introduced to some of his colleagues, one of whom is eighty eight but only looks seventy. Japanese people age very well. On the way into the shrine I saw some priests so had a photo taken. Once inside we joined other guests in the seats at the side. In the centre of the room were two rows of priests, sat opposite each other. Further inside the shrine was another priest who’s job was to receive the offerings. Proceedings started at 11am when a Master of Ceremonies spoke. When he’d finished everyone stood up and bowed. This was repeated several times. Eventually the offerings were carried in – some uncooked and some cooked rice, fruit and vegetables, a bird etc. The representatives of the different branches of the Togo Association, including Mitsunori-San were sat in rows further inside the shrine. In turn, each of them made their offering by taking something from the priest and going up to the back of the shrine to present it. The guests of each representative, including me, stood up and followed the bow, bow, clap, clap, bow procedure at the same time as he did. This happened a dozen or more times. Mitsunori-San offered some leaves from the Sakaki Tree, which has significance in the Shinto religion as part of the creation story.

Dancing girls in the shrine.

Dancing girls in the shrine.

Once all the offerings had been made we enjoyed watching a dance by three young girls wearing Japanese costume and holding fans. Once that was over we went back outside and were given a drink made from Sake and some kind of thick milk. We also received a very high quality Bento box (a Japanese lunch box). We went back to the office and had some green tea. I chatted with the older guy I mentioned earlier about my journey. He seemed very interested and asked my plenty of questions about the places I’d been to.
Definitely time for lunch and we found a nice Ramnen bar before we headed back to the station. The streets around this area are full of fashion shops and were very busy on this sunny Sunday. Togo Jinja, with its trees and peaceful gardens, is something of an oasis here.

Mitsunori-San and Sadako-San standing in front of the Admiral Togo memorial.

Mitsunori-San and Sadako-San standing in front of the Admiral Togo memorial.

Once back at home we spent the afternoon watching Sumo. It was the last day of the Championship and the contestants were much more evenly matched than yesterday. Bouts were lasting minutes, rather than seconds, as the wrestlers undertook plenty of ritualistic salt throwing, stamping and squatting down. Then they’d stand up and do it all again. The actual fighting was longer too. Sadako-San explained some of the finer points to me and I slowly got into the whole thing. My favourite was the Bulgarian I mentioned previously but unfortunately he was knocked out. Pushed out, to be precise.
We ate some food from the Bento boxes for our evening meal and I even tried the Sake. Yes, I know – very naughty of me. It had been a very busy learning day for me, with two very important strands of Japanese culture coming at me full strength. I’d really enjoyed it all.
In the morning we all went out to visit the Japanese Battleship Mikasa. It was in dry dock nearby and it was here that I learned all about Admiral Marquis Togo Heihachiro, to give him his full name. His fame and renown comes from a sea battle against the Russians in 1904 and the Mikasa was his flagship. It is easily Japan’s most famous ship.

Togo memorial with the Mikasa behind.

Togo memorial with the Mikasa behind.

Admiral Togo was a very interesting man. As an apprentice officer he studied naval science in England for seven years in the 1870’s and sailed around the world on a British ship as an ordinary seaman. The Japanese and British navies were very close at that time and Japan ordered three ships form Britain. Togo sailed back to Japan at the end of this training on one of them. He was appointed captain of several different ships and saw action in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5. He was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the combined fleet of the Japanese Navy in 1903.

A painting of Admiral Togo during his most famous battle.

A painting of Admiral Togo during his most famous battle.

The Russo-Japanese War took place in 1904-5 and this is were he really made his name. He defeated and trapped the Russian Pacific Fleet in Port Arthur (China) and when the Russian Baltic fleet arrived, having sailed halfway around the world, he destroyed them for good measure. These defeats led to events in Russia which brought on the revolution. The Togo Shrine was built after his death to honour him.

Our guide. Kouka, on the left.

Our guide. Kouka, on the left.

When we got to the Mikasa we were given a tour round by Kouta, one of the official guides. He is a former submariner and served under Mitsunori-San, so I think we got some special treatment. Here’s some things I learnt.
The ship was built by Vickers in the UK. Admiral Togo spent the whole of the Battle of the Yellow Sea in the Conning Room of the ship. It looked like great leadership, putting himself in the firing line, but the actual reason was that he was very short and struggled to see over the instruments on the bridge. The Japanese gunners could score a strike rate of 10%, a real achievement when the Russian navy was at 3-4% and the British at 6%. I queried this, struggling to believe what it implied: 90% or more of shells fired missed their target. Incredible! But it’s just the way was with long range gunnery at sea in those days. The Japanese were so good because of constant practice, something that Togo insisted on. The ship suffered an on board explosion in the 1920’s, caused by some sailors deciding the powder magazine was a good place to brew some alcohol! Their fire blew it up. The ship was re-floated and then put into dry dock as a historic monument. At the end of WW2 the Russians wanted it destroyed but the Americans said no. As a compromise the superstructure was removed and subsequently destroyed. What’s on there now was remade for display purposes.

Aye Aye Skipper!

Aye Aye Skipper!

I really enjoyed our tour and I learned a lot about some history that doesn’t often cross the bows of Europeans. It’s easy to see why the Japanese are so proud of the Mikasa and of Admiral Togo.

The bridge of the Mikasa.

The bridge of the Mikasa.

I was pleased to be able to treat us all to a Sushi lunch and was thoroughly entertained by the whole process. I’d already discovered how good the Japanese are at making food delivery simple but a Sushi restaurant takes it to a whole new level. The food comes along on a conveyor belt next to the table. You take a dish, eat it and put the empty plate down a chute. Each plate is the same price so they count plates to know what has been eaten at the table. You can order extra dishes by selecting from a menu and pushing a button. It comes along the conveyor belt which stops by your table so you can take it off. Hot water, cups and green tea are at the table too, just help yourself. When you’ve finished you press a button and your tally card is brought to you. Pay at the till on the way out. So simple.

Parking, Japanese style.

Parking, Japanese style.

Back at the apartment block we got out of the car, Mitsunori-San pressed some buttons at the car park entrance, drove his car onto a platform and we walked away. The machinery took the car and parked it somewhere up above. Fantastic.

Local biker doing her Sunday chores.

Local biker doing her Sunday chores.

For dinner we had Tempra, another dish cooked at the table. This consists of small pieces of fish, meat and vegetable dipped in a light batter and deep fried in ‘salad oil’ I didn’t find out what plant it was from but it was very nice.
Rain greeted me next morning, I was in for a wet ride. Before I left I went and visited Sadako-San’s collection of American Naval Wives who came to make Japanese Dolls. They were very friendly and I ended up giving them an impromptu presentation about who I was and where I’d been. In turn I looked at what they were doing and learned a little about how to make the dolls.

My wonderful hosts.

My wonderful hosts.

I must admit I had been very nervous about meeting Sae’s parents. I’m not really sure why. I’d met them before when they came to London for her wedding but this time I was on unfamiliar territory so maybe that was the reason. But I needn’t have worried. I am delighted to say that they are both wonderful people and welcomed me with open arms. We seemed to get on very well together and talked about all sorts of different things. They have great senses of humour too. I was delighted to have been able to learn so much at their hands and was honoured to have been invited to the ceremony at the Togo Jinja. They put themselves out to make me feel welcome and I am very grateful to them both, and to Sae for arranging the visit. The highlight of my trip so far.
Next? Hamamatsu, and Japanese culture of a completely different kind.

Metros and Mountains.

Tokyo, Japan. 16th November 2014.

Tokyo is a big place. Millions of people, thousands of vehicles on the busy streets. So why did the police pick on little old me? As I came down off a bridge on my way into the city I was waved to a stop and directed towards a group of policemen at the side of the road, most of whom were on white bicycles. ‘Traffic violation’ I was told. I never did find out what it was but they soon latched on to my non Japanese number plate and my foreign driving licence. My failure to get an IDP before I left the UK was now coming back to haunt me. Politeness abounded of course, as I was questioned about my licence and number plate. A young officer, who spoke some English, wrote the questions down, in English, then wrote down my answers, also in English. ‘Where had I been before Japan’. ‘Where had I entered the country’. And so on. Meanwhile other officers where taking turns to write down the details from my passport and licence in their notebooks. I was beginning to feel like I was in the middle of a bizarre pantomime. ‘Where’s your IDP?’ ‘It’s behind you.’ ‘Oh no it isn’t but I’ve got a copy of it here, on my laptop.’ Base camp had sent me scanned copies of my new IDP before posting it to me, so I was able to convince them that it was on the way to me. I showed them my Carnet de Passage, stamped by Japanese customs, and also the insurance certificate for the bike. They had been talking about me not being allowed to ride my bike without a Japanese number plate but the presentation of these documents seemed to be easing the situation a bit. Or so I thought. Incorrectly.

The young officer who had been questioning me made it clear he wasn’t going to let me ride any further. ‘Leave your bike here and travel on foot’ was the gist of his message. The officer who had initially pulled me up was an older guy and I appealed to him, pointing out that I only had a few Kms to ride before I’d be at my hostel, after which I wouldn’t be needing to use the bike for a few days. By then my IDP would have arrived. He spoke to the others and in the end they relented and let me go. Relieved, I went hostel hunting and eventually managed to find it. Next problem, where to park? Big city, in Japan, equals limited and expensive parking, even for bikes. The hostel staff located one of those underground bike parks for me but they wanted 4,400 Yen (£24) per day!! Not on your Nellie! That was just as expensive as the off street car park next door to the hostel. The hostel was in a quiet side street so I took a chance and left the bike outside, tucked in as far as possible, and kept my fingers crossed. Private contractors manage the parking regime in Japanese cities so there was always a risk of removal. But they have to leave a notification first so I left my phone number at the front desk and asked the staff to call me if anything were to happen. In the four days I was there, nothing did. One of the first things I did was to get them to print off the relevant pages of my IDP. Like a lucky charm, I hoped they would save me from bicycle mounted policemen. The ride down from Soma had been good. Plenty of bikes out and about. A nice, sunny Sunday. But that also meant the roads were busy and the consequential slow progress drove me onto the Expressway. £24 for 190kms. Licenced theft in my opinion.

Some helpful Indian visitors, hiding my bike from the parking attendants.

Some helpful Indian visitors, hiding my bike from the parking attendants.

Enough moaning. What about Tokyo? As I’ve said, it’s a big place. Reckoned to be the world’s biggest city in fact. But is it? Well no, it isn’t. It’s the largest metropolitan area but it gets its size from the fact that the Tokyo administrative area includes Tokyo City plus the surrounding urban areas. Twenty six cities all told, plus some islands. There is an excellent transport infrastructure to help you get around, so no need to bother with the bike this time, unlike Kyoto. Its mainstay is the two metro systems, The Tokyo Metro and the TOEI. In practical terms there’s no difference between them although fare structures can be different. Pre-paid passes work on both. I was very impressed by the easy to use map, with its colour coded lines and numbered stations. The stations even have numbered exits which are marked on the street maps. The station names plates are in English too and announcements on the trains are also dual language. There’s lots of Braille writing within the stations as well as yellow lines with dots on them to assist the hard of sight with getting around. These yellow lines are to be found out in the streets too, at the edges of kerbs and so on. I’d heard the tales of people being pushed into the carriages by platform assistants during the rush hour  but I’m sad to say I never experienced that I think it might have been good fun.

Colour coded lines, numbered stations, written in English. Easy Peasy!

Colour coded lines, numbered stations, written in English. Easy Peasy!

It’s possible to get cheap one day passes for the Metro so I took advantage of that. In fact it’s possible to obtain very cheap multi-day passes if you get them at the airport as a foreign tourist, or at certain travel agents outside of Tokyo as a normal tourist. The trick is to know about this before you arrive in the city. It’s too late then. Ask me how I know! My plan for the first day was to visit the Sensoji Temple, a short walk from the hostel. I was just about to go out when one of the staff told me there was someone asking for me. I presumed the police, wanting me to move my bike, but not this time. I went to reception and there stood Ikuo, my host from the guesthouse in Ohata. To say I was amazed would be putting it mildly. It seems he had been gigging in the city and was walking up to visit his sister, who lives nearby. He’d seen the bike parked outside and called in to say hello. Fantastic! After a coffee we went our separate ways and I walked up to the temple. This is one of Japan’s National Treasures and has a large, decorative gate, very nice temple buildings and a stunning pagoda. The grounds have all sorts of little shrines and statues in them. Perhaps one of the complexes most noticeable features is the rows of arcade type shops along the three hundred metres of Nakamise Dori. This street runs between the outer and inner gates of the temple. They sell food and tourist tat but it’s reckoned to be the most Japanese of Tokyo’s markets.

Nakamise Dori from above. Very busy with tourists.

Nakamise Dori from above. Very busy with tourists.

While I was walking around yet another of those strange coincidences occurred. Walking down the street towards me was Matt and Hannah, the young Swiss couple that I’d met on the ferry. Two coincidences in one day was almost too much for rationality. What was going on? So we looked around the temple together, enjoyed a coffee afterwards then parted company. They were off to China in a couple of days. I was envious of that.

One of the many shrines in the temple gardens. You can see where it gets rubbed for good luck.

One of the many shrines in the temple gardens. You can see where it gets rubbed for good luck.

I walked back to the hostel and later on I was joined by one of my room mates, a Canadian guy named David. He was in Tokyo looking for work as a teacher of English. We walked back up towards the temple and found a noodle bar – good food, good price. The temple complex was very nicely lit up, as were the arcades and their stalls. A lot of the shops in the area were still open although it was after 9pm by now.

The temple gate by night. I think it looks better than in the daylight.

The temple gate by night. I think it looks better than in the daylight.

The main temple at night.

The main temple at night.

My first day In Tokyo left me with a good impression and I was looking forward to seeing more. I really should have got up early for my visit to the wholesale fish market at Tsukiji. Wholesale markets start early and I didn’t get there until nearly midday. Even so, there were still stall holders selling the last of their stock and I was able to walk around inside the huge market building and get a flavour of how it would be at its peak. Busy. And noisy. And probably smelling of fish! I was fascinated by the variety on sale, many of which I’d never seen before. The Japanese love their fish (I love their fish too.) so this place would have been very busy early on and it was a shame not to have seen it.

Pick a fish, any one you like. Makes a lovely dish, does fish.

Pick a fish, any one you like. Makes a lovely dish, does fish.

In the streets nearby there were plenty of stalls selling cooked food, not all of it fish based. But I did try a clam, which is cooked in half of its own shell over a grill. Another stall sold some kind of flavoured omelette, so nice that I had two slices. Then I had some fish wrapped in cheese and bacon, on a stick. Also very nice and all of them cheap. Other stalls sold all sorts of different dishes and all were busy with the lunchtime crowd. It seems that as the fish sellers move out the fish eaters move in.

If you don't like fish there's always some stew.

If you don’t like fish there’s always some stew.

I spent the rest of the day visiting some areas that specialised in particular cityscape features. First was Shibuya, home to many iconic skyscrapers. I would have been impressed but for some of London’s new buildings. I was impressed by the station though, raised up off the street, all smooth marble tiling and efficiency. Next was Electric City, home to streets full of electronic retailers. A bit like Tottenham Court Road on steroids. I bought a couple of items there, just small things that I needed. Finally was Shinjuku, Tokyo’s version of Soho. There were streets with bright neon and small restaurants, just starting to liven up for the evening. I could see how busy it would become as the night wore on. Footsore now, I made use of my £6 one day Metro pass to make my way back to the hostel and get stuck in to organising some things for further down the line.

Seem at the Sensoji Temple. I don't think this quite fits in with the Shinto ethos.

Seem at the Sensoji Temple. I don’t think this quite fits in with the Shinto ethos.

My last day in Tokyo didn’t go to plan. Which was good. I had intended going to the Sumo Museum, then the Yasakumu Shrine, dedicated to Japan’s war dead, and finally take a walk through the nearby Imperial Gardens. Well, I got waylaid. The Sumo Museum was near enough to walk to. On the way I went past Yokoam Park and in there is an exhibition dedicated to the victims of the 1923 Kento earthquake. It was the worst one of the modern age, killing 143,000 people. Most of them died in the fires that broke out, in particular a huge firestorm that swept large parts of the city. It took two days to extinguish it. Tokyo was effectively destroyed. There were many photographs in the exhibition along with examples of metal items which became seriously twisted due to the extreme heat. The opportunity was taken to rebuild the city with modern networks of roads, trains, and public services. Parks were placed all over Tokyo as refuge areas, and public buildings were constructed with stricter standards than private buildings in order to accommodate refugees. This was the beginning of Japan’s mostly successful attempts to reduce the impact of future earthquakes. Unplanned visit number two happened when I came across the Edo Tokyo Museum. Three hours later I came out, very impressed by what I’d seen. Edo is the former name of Tokyo and was ruled by a Shogunate. The Imperial Capital at that time was in Kyoto. The city was home to many Samurai and this gave it a distinctive character when compared to other cities. It became the country’s capital city in the late 19th century, around the time Japan opened itself up to the outside world.

One of the many fabulous models in the Edo Tokyo Museum.

One of the many fabulous models in the Edo Tokyo Museum.

The exhibition had many models showing how the city was laid out and the type of buildings within it. There were examples of costumes worn and artefacts used by the residents and ruling families. Many of the photographs on display showed how Tokyo modernised and industrialised after WW1. It was strange to see people dressed as if they could be in any busy city in America or Britain. This change was rapid as consumerism took hold. Much of the information was in English, there was a free audio guide and also English speaking guides available to answer questions.

Shogunate female costume.

Shogunate female costume.

And for the men? Just as dressy.

And for the men? Just as dressy.

Best of all was the live performance demonstrating the art of drumming, presumably something from ancient times. Three young ladies gave a very energetic performance on the large drums and then got some of the attending schoolchildren to have a try. Great fun to watch.

Big drums and the performance was excellent.

Big drums and the performance was excellent.

When I finally got to the Sumo Museum I found it was mostly an exhibition of costumes, photos and paintings of famous wrestlers and their bouts. There was a video of past bouts which I sat through and slowly began to understand a little more about the sport. I was helped in this by some information which detailed how the divisions are formed, how the fighters are trained and what their careers are like. I came to realise it isn’t just two fat blokes with funny hair and a chastity belt, throwing their weight around.

Cartoon of two well known Sumo wrestlers.

Cartoon of two well known Sumo wrestlers.

I made it to the Yasukumu Shrine eventually. On the walk up through the gardens I saw various memorials. The shrine itself was nice but unfortunately the accompanying exhibition had closed for the day. So I finally made my way into the Imperial Gardens, going past a large concert venue where some big star was performing. But my delayed arrival, and the encroaching dusk meant that the gardens were also closed for the night. I was able to walk down the path through them but not to explore. Just as well as I wouldn’t have been able to see anything anyway. My all too short visit to Tokyo was over. I liked the city very much. There is a huge amount to see as it is full of museums and art exhibitions. It has several zoos and many gardens and shrines. I’d only just scratched the surface. What surprised me was how easy it is to get around and also to eat ‘proper’ Japanese food very cheaply. I’d love to go back as a conventional tourist and do the city some justice. All the people I dealt with were nice and helpful. That applies especially to the parking management company, who I didn’t meet at all. I was able to leave my bike in the street for the whole three days. A minor Tokyo miracle.

Sumo street statue.

Sumo street statue.

But time was moving on and I had to as well. Mount Fuji was on my horizons, in my mind if not yet in my sight. Did I mention that Tokyo is big? When I left the next morning it took me two hours to clear the city, even using the Expressway. The road went up some hills and I was fascinated to see another example of the Japanese tunneller’s ingenuity. Instead of building one large tunnel to carry the three lane road through the hill, they decided to build two, each of two lanes. The road diverged,, both sections of two lanes, then joined up again on the other side. Amazing. It may well be a common method around the world but it was new to me. I missed the turning I needed and went over a 1,000 metre hill on the way back to my route. I must be getting near the mountain!. The rain found me and got heavier as I rode into the town of Fujiyoshida. It took me quite a while to find the hostel and I needed the help of a railway ticket clerk (map), a postman (diagram on a piece of wet paper) and a cafe owner. I found it eventually and it was fortunate that I was in the dormitory on my own as it meant I could spread my wet gear around. Next morning was sunny, if a little cold. Just right for a walk up to the Sengen Shrine and the Churei-toh Pagoda. A brisk walk through the town and up a steep hill brought me to the shrine and another one got me to the pagoda up above it. The pagoda had been built of concrete in the 1950’s and was a memorial to Japan’s war dead from the 1860’s onwards. It was worth the climb because I got some terrific photos of Mount Fuji, away in the distance. The clouds around the top kept moving around, giving me an ever changing picture to enjoy. I walked even further up the hill to a picnic area and while I was up there a group of men, older than me, came marching down from a point that was even higher up the steep hill. One of them told me they went up there for exercise several times a week. Rather them than me!

Mount Fuji, trying to beat the clouds.

Mount Fuji, trying to beat the clouds.

On the way down a guy working in the gardens pointed out to me that something was going on at the shrine. A couple were getting married and had visited the shrine as part of their ceremony. The bride had gone inside by the time I got there but the groom was happy to pose for a photo. Very nice of him and I wished them well.

Man of the moment. Marriage beckons.

Man of the moment. Marriage beckons.

Back at the hostel I asked the receptionist if any of the roads that went up the mountain slopes were open. The information website said not. Snow over the last couple of days had closed them and now they wouldn’t re-open until spring. I was bitterly disappointed. On the map these roads looked really good, twisting their way up the mountain side to the various mountaineering base camps. Obviously they only go part of the way up the slopes but it would have been a great ride. Even so, I planned a route that would take me to them just in case the warmer weather had changed things. Well, as you can guess, it didn’t work out. The routes to the bases were closed but I still had some fun on the roads up as far as the closure points as they were twisty and empty. One of them went up quite high and I got to a car park from where I had a great view of the mountain, with clouds floating around it. I wanted to get some really good pictures of this iconic natural wonder but the weather really seemed to be conspiring against me. There is a road that goes around the base of the mountain from which the various base camp roads start. While I was riding along it I came to a village and spotted what looked like a classic bike shop. I pulled in for a look and found it was a place called Custom House Specials. They’re a small manufacturer of bikes made in a style resembling old British singles. They use the Yamaha SR500 engine in a frame they make themselves.

One of the beautiful bikes.

One of the beautiful bikes.

They looked very good, with their clip-ons, rear sets and twin leading shoe brakes. I chatted to the owner and his friend, who were both amazed when they learned I’d ridden there from London. They made me coffee and we sat and chatted. The owner’s friend had been to the Isle of Man and had visited the Sammy Miller Museum. He was keen to show me his photos. Nice guys, about my age, and it was a very pleasant interlude on my ride out.

The owner, Yasubari Araki, seems pleased that I dropped by.

The owner, Yasubari Araki, seems pleased that I dropped by.

Back at the hostel I now had a room mate, a German guy called Tobias. He’d got fed up with his job, his failed marriage and life in general so had chucked it all in to travel for a couple of years. He was hoping to be able to climb the mountain next day. We decided to go out to a nearby Ramen restaurant. We couldn’t find it at first and Toby asked a woman in another restaurant where it was. She promptly stopped what she was doing and took us back down the street to show us where it was. How kind and how typical. I felt slightly disappointed with the day in not being able to ride the mountain roads but at least I’d had a chance to explore a bit and had met some nice people. Classic bike manufacturing at the foot of Mount Fuji? Who’d have thought it. When I left Fujiyoshida the mountain looked stunning in the morning sunshine. Yesterday hadn’t been such a good day for photos, a bit too cloudy. The route I took went alongside Yamanakako Lake. I was amused by the swan shaped boats moored there.

Swan Lake.

Swan Lake.

As I climbed up the hill away from it I came to a view point with a wonderful outlook over the whale shaped lake and to Mount Fuji beyond. Fabulous! Both the mountain and the lake are very important spiritual places for the Japanese and the way they looked in the morning sunshine made it easy to see why. So after a wet ride and a cloudy day, my camera and I had finally managed to achieve at least part of what I came for.

Mount Fuji, with halo

Mount Fuji, with halo

The lake and the mountain from Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park.

The lake and the mountain from Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park.

Now it was time to motor on and get to Yasakusa where a long weekend with Sae’s parents awaited me.

A Ride Down the Tsunami Coast

Hachinohe, Japan. 11th November 2014.

When Sae, my friend’s Japanese wife, suggested I visit the Tsunami hit areas on the north east coast, I wasn’t at all sure about it. The idea of sightseeing through other people’s tragedy just didn’t make me feel comfortable. But Sae insisted I should. Her reasoning was that I would be helping local people by supporting their economy every time I stayed in a hotel or bought a meal. That argument carried enough weight to persuade me to visit the area. And, of course, I was naturally curious.

One of the many waterfalls in the Oirase Gorge.

One of the many waterfalls in the Oirase Gorge.

I headed across country towards the coast from Mutsu, still enjoying the memories of my pleasant stay there. The route led me through Oirase Gorge, noted for its steep sides and plentiful waterfalls. The road was fun to ride although I had woken up that morning feeling a bit queasy and that was affecting my riding. I just wasn’t ‘on it’ and was actually riding a bit too quickly. A couple of nearlies slowed me down somewhat and I stopped to take some photos too, which helped. The lake the river ran into was very pretty, nestling in the surrounding hills, but looked like a lonely place with all the summertime cruise boats moored up for the approaching winter.

The yellow line is the nice, twisty road that's just right for bikes.

The yellow line is the nice, twisty road that’s just right for bikes.

In the nearby village I got talking to a middle aged Japanese couple who looked at me in surprise when I took my crash helmet off. They asked me where I was from and when I told them I’d ridden there from London, across Europe and Russia, they asked me my age. No surprise there, it’s become a common question.

Lonely summertime pleasure cruisers.

Lonely summertime pleasure cruisers.

Yes, it does snow in these parts. Sign by a pull in where drivers can fit their snow chains.

Yes, it does snow in these parts. Sign by a pull in where drivers can fit their snow chains.

Finding the hotel I was aiming for in Hachinohe wasn’t easy. I had headed for the station, as usual, but no hotels there. A friendly security guard led me up to the Tourist Information centre where they directed me to the other station in the town. And there it was.

My GPS was proving to be a bit tricky for finding addresses in Japan, usually about one kilometre out. That’s a lot of buildings! I needed to find a way around that. I’d come to realise that street numbers were tricky things, seeming to contain much more information than just the building number. There could be as many as four numbers, linked by hyphens, as well as a street and area name. The numbers can refer to a Ward and a District as well as an apartment block and the apartment within it. It’s no surprise that the GPS mapping was struggling. I ended up using a system which combined GPS coordinates, Google maps and Google street view. I’d photograph the webpage of the Google info and then use the image on my camera as a map. It worked quite well in the end. Just as well though.
Once the hotels are located the price is usually bearable – £25 – £30 for a single room, and they are well equipped if sometimes small. But they all have the aforementioned luxury toilet seats, free soap and shampoo, and a small water heater. Fortunately they also have an air conditioning unit which doubles as a heater. Autumn in Japan is wet and Japanese rain is easily the wettest I have ever encountered! On one occasion I had everything I’d been wearing or carrying spread across the table and dresser, or hung up on door knobs and curtain rails, hoping it would dry in the thirty degree heat. A morning of heavy rain followed by an afternoon of torrential downpours left me hankering for the Kazakh desert.
But once I reached the north east coast it was easy to forget my slight discomforts. As I write this the fourth anniversary of the Tsunami has just passed. Here’s a reminder of what it was all about.

Makes you sit up and take notice.

Makes you sit up and take notice.

The Tohoku earthquake of Friday 11th March 2011 was at 9.0 on the Richter scale, Japan’s most powerful and the 4th most powerful ever recorded. The epicentre was 70kms off the coast which meant that the effects on land weren’t so destructive. The big problem was the tsunami (Tsu – port, Nami – wave) that followed it. The seabed rose by 6-8 metres at the earthquake site while a 400km stretch of Japan’s coastline dropped by 0.6 meters – a devastating combination.The tsunami wave was as high as 40 metres in places and the havoc it wreaked was seen on our TV screens. I don’t need to repeat it here. Although the damage has mostly been cleared up there are still signs of it in the abandoned buildings, closed off roads and depopulated areas.

Abandoned apartment block.

Abandoned apartment block.

Worldwide, the tsunami affected coastal areas on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in the Americas, but the anticipated huge waves thankfully didn’t materialise. However, the earthquake was powerful enough to have some effects that most of us won’t have realised. Parts of Japan moved closer to America by as much as 2.4 metres while off the coast the seabed rose by 3 metres. The redistribution of mass on the Earth’s surface resulted in small changes to its rate of rotation. The planet’s axis shifted by between 10 and 25cm and the speed of rotation increased, shortening the day by 1.8 microseconds. Some GPS locator beacons had to be reset as a result.
All very interesting but pretty much irrelevant to the Japanese people who lost relatives, homes and livelihoods.

The figures refer to how far behind and in front of the sign the tsunami came onto land.

The figures refer to how far behind and in front of the sign the tsunami came onto land.

As of now, the appalling statistics include: nearly 16,000 deaths; over 2,500 missing; over 16,000 injured; well over 1 million buildings damaged; insured losses up to US$35 billion. Another major problem was the damage to three of the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The effects of this are still ongoing. Perfectly good houses and business premises have simply been abandoned, probably for hundreds of years. The whole nuclear industry is in a state of flux worldwide, and in crisis in Japan.
None of these figures can demonstrate the human cost. Just think how many wrecked lives and livelihoods lie within the statistics relating to the number of deaths, injuries and buildings damaged.

Sea wall strengthening.

Sea wall strengthening.

Riding down through the affected areas brought it home to me in a way that the TV pictures never could. The areas close to the coast are completely cleared of buildings and in some places there are simply large, flat areas with nothing on them at all. As I rode into the towns within the affected area I could see signs that gave information as to how far in front of, and behind, the sign the tsunami struck. In other places there were signs warning that the area could potentially be affected in a future Tsunami. The rain of the previous couple of days had cleared and the sunny weather completely belied the way that nature can turn on us within moments.

Huge areas of land have been cleared of buildings.

Huge areas of land have been cleared of buildings.

At one point I turned off the main road and rode along a narrow road which ran between a cliff and the shore. There were notices advising drivers and pedestrians the distance to the nearest escape routes up the cliff. This gave me a really spooky feeling and I couldn’t help but glance out to sea every so often, checking for large waves. It was a strange feeling to ride in and then out of the previous, and likely affected areas as the road went up and down the hills and valleys of the coastline.

Huge mounds of earth, being grassed over, which will have trees planted on them.

Huge mounds of earth, being grassed over, which will have trees planted on them.

There is a huge amount of work taking place in these areas. Japan has a very good tsunami protection system. There are early warning systems where text messages get sent out (for earthquakes too) and there are seawall type barriers along the coast. On this occasion the tsunami was so big that it overwhelmed everything. People who had received warnings headed for higher ground which simply wasn’t high enough. I suppose these systems can only be based on previous experience.
So it was no surprise to see works in place to strengthen and raise seawalls and also to understand why some of the devastated areas hadn’t been rebuilt on. There is a massive project under way to build what look to be hills that I assume are designed to reduce the speed and reach of any future wave. They are flat topped, with sloping sides, and have been grassed over. They will have trees planted on them too. They are probably 15 metres tall, 100 meters long and 50 metres wide. The work is so extensive that in several areas the earth is being quarried out of the local hillsides and conveyor mechanisms have been built to transport it. These projects are big! Had I been able to see them from above I think I would have seen them laid out rather like the blocks on a bar of chocolate. That’s what they reminded me of from the ground.
The national and local governments are making decisions about zoning certain areas so that in some there will be no building allowed; in others only commercial premises; in a third group domestic buildings. The problems around this approach relate to people who want their land back or compensation for not being able to use it. Many will simply not want to return to such a high risk area. The problems are endless and solutions costly. All I could do was to feel sympathy and also do what Sae suggested, which was to spend time and money in the area so as to support local people and businesses.

Danger zone.

Danger zone.

One of the bigger cities in the area is Sendai. Its port area was badly affected but I headed into the city centre, looking for a hostel whose address I had. As usual, the street wasn’t on the GPS so instead I toured round the hotels looking for one which wasn’t full and I could afford. No joy. Eventually I came to an APA Hotel where they allowed me to use their wi-fi to double check the location. I pin pointed a hotel near to the hostel and the APA reception gave me a map which had the hotel marked on it. Step by step, I was getting closer! At that hotel (full) they marked the location of the hostel on my map and after a bit of chasing my tail I found it. My one fear was that it would be full but I was in luck, they had a bed.
OK, next question was where to park the bike. The hostel people told me of an underground bike parking garage nearby. I found it eventually and had to ask a taxi driver to move so I could get onto the pavement and up to the entrance. Odd. They drive on the left in Japan so I started to take the bike down the ramp on the left hand side of the entrance. I quickly realised I’d made a mistake because the steep ramp had no room between it and the wall for me. I sat there on the bike, a few feet onto the ramp, stuck. Suddenly the ramp started to move and I was shot backwards onto the pavement. Luckily I hung on OK. I turned tail and rode off, defeated by a system I couldn’t deal with. A bit of thought got me to realise that I should have put the bike on the right hand ramp and walked down the steps on the left hand side of it. The ramp on the left was for people coming up, who would have done the same thing. The up ramp moves because you’re not supposed to sit on the bike while it goes up or down. So simple when you know how, and very clever. I also realised that the garage was designed for cycles and scooters, not overlanders with luggage. I don’t think I would have made it down there even if I had gone about it the right way.

Lock up the front wheel and the clock starts ticking.

Lock up the front wheel and the clock starts ticking.

Back at the hostel I saw a couple of cars parked in the street so I put my bike between them, covered it up and hoped for the best. It wasn’t very long before a couple of policemen knocked at the hostel making it clear I needed to move it. The area was very busy, with small clubs and restaurants. It had typically narrow, busy streets. Think Soho. No street parking allowed. The policemen told me to follow them and that I had to wheel my bike. They walked me along a few streets, including some that were one-way, and showed me a bike specific street level car park. I had to wheel my bike into a bay and pass a chain through the front wheel. The chain locked into a clamp on the wall. As soon as I’d done that the machine attached to it started the clock ticking and I would have to pay to get it released. A clever system, I thought. The first two hours were free and then it was Y300 (about £1.75) per 8 hours thereafter. For Japan, very cheap. Very helpful of the police to take me there and not to give me hassle about the illegal parking. They wrote down all my passport details, although I’m not sure why.

Pay to release it. Not too expensive.

Pay to release it. Not too expensive.

By the time I was back at the hostel and settled in I was exhausted. Riding into Sendai had involved a typical Japanese scenario of about 25kms of endless towns and traffic lights. I put my London rider skills to good use but even so, it was still an arduous journey. My resolve not to use the expensive Expressways any more was weakening.
I slept in next day, feeling a bit under the weather. But I’d booked two nights at the hostel, and I wanted to look around the town, so I headed out to find the museum. The walk down to the river on a crisp autumn day did me good and the museum was located in a nice park. I had a pleasant couple of hours discovering the history of the area although the audio guide I got was pretty useless because very few of the numbers on the exhibits matched anything to the guide.

Blind Man's Bluff.

Blind Man’s Bluff.

However I did learn about the first Japanese envoy ever to visit the Pope. This was at a time when Japan was coming out of its isolationist period and was starting to welcome western visitors and diplomats to the country. They built a ship in the European style and the envoy travelled to Rome, was received favourably by the Pope, and then travelled back. He had been supported in his mission by the King of Spain and his journey took him seven years, going via Spain and Mexico. By the time he returned the Japanese had started persecuting Christians. Oops! Even so, his mission was deemed successful and he gained notoriety and good fortune from it.

A shrine near to the museum.

A shrine near to the museum.

Up at the top of the hill was the site of the castle and on the way up there I got chatting to a guy who was directing traffic around the roadworks. He spoke good English and we chatted about where I’d come from and about London. He was about my age and seemed to be one of the many older people I’d seen who do this kind of work. There’s legions of people who wave illuminated red sticks, or red, white and green flags at traffic. They’re always there at roadworks or the entrances to building sites and seem to be part of an army of semi retired people who can’t, or don’t want to let work go. On the Expressway I had seen some automatic versions of these people with electrically waved arms holding a flag. They made me feel quite annoyed on behalf of the real people who were being denied gainful employment because of it! The castle was closed for renovation but the view was great and I felt much better after the walk there and back.

Good use of available resources or work creation for the elderly?

Good use of available resources or work creation for the elderly?

I only had time to visit that one area although Sendai has quite a few noteworthy places, including an important shrine and the Miyagi Museum of art. The city has a hop on, hop off bus service called The Loople. It enables the visitor to take a tour and visit any of the city’s special sites.
I’d picked up a leaflet about a nice steak restaurant that was near the hostel and when I told the people there where I was heading to they said it was rather an expensive place. ‘Not at thirteen hundred Yen’ I said. They quickly pointed out that the leaflet actually said thirteen thousand Yen. They laughed, I slunk away to Lawsons to buy another noodle meal. My method of preparing these meals also raised a chuckle among the friendly and English speaking crowd at the bar. I seemed to be breaking the rules.

Narrow, busy streets. But kept clean by patrols fo sweepers.

Narrow, busy streets. But kept clean by patrols fo sweepers.

Next day’s plan was to ride further down the coast to Iwaki then cut inland to Nikko, which was on the way to Tokyo, and stay the night there. When I went to get the bike the front tyre was half flat so I pumped it up and kept my fingers crossed. Back at the hostel the staff came out to wave me off. I thought that was nice of them but I think I’d been good entertainment value and I’d enjoyed being there.
It goes without saying that crossing your fingers and hoping rarely works and it wasn’t long before I was stopping outside a 7-11 to fix the puncture. This delayed me enough that I decided to stay the night at Iwaki instead of Nikko so I carried on down the coast seeing pretty much the same sights as I had during the previous days. And then things started to get a bit strange.

I go no further!

I go no further!

I’d been making good progress when suddenly I was being waved down by a guy in uniform with a red stick. Just past him was another guy who stopped me and led me to a pull-in on the other side of the road. Waiting there was a police van with about six policemen. What had I done?!? A little earlier I’d passed a turning where another uniformed guy had given me a hard look as I rode by. Was I speeding? Had he radioed ahead? Nothing quite that drastic. One of the policemen spoke English and he explained that I could go no further along this road. I had strayed into a zone that had been affected by radiation from the leak at Fukushima nuclear plant. Gulp! Only closed in vehicles were allowed to use the road down to Iwaki. No pedestrians, no bicycles and no motorcycles. This stuck me as daft. If there’s a radiation risk would being in a car or truck make you any safer? I didn’t get it.

Once thriving now an abandoned business.

Once thriving; now an abandoned business.

In any event, I was going no further. Japanese officials are always polite so they politely took my details and then politely turned me round the way I had come. They politely explained that I should head for the town of Fukushima and then go inland. In a funny kind of way I felt quite special, as if I was in a scene from a film or something.
As I headed back towards Sendai, things began to make a bit more sense. I noticed that many of the buildings were abandoned. Some where still damaged, others just closed up. There was grass and weeds growing around them and also along the side of the road. All very un-Japanese. I assumed that radiation was preventing them from being pulled down. It was clear that some businesses had needed to close, because of damage, yet others were still open and seemed to be doing OK. I figured that some people had just given up and moved out. So the reason for being turned round was becoming clearer to me. It wasn’t to do with contaminated air, as I’d first assumed, but more to do with contaminated land and probably buildings. So the threat was greater for those in the open air than those in an enclosed vehicle, which probably have pollen filters which would remove dust. That was what I concluded anyway although I may well be wrong.

Love don't live here any more. Still sound but too risky.

Love don’t live here any more. Still sound but too risky.

As advised, I headed for Fukushima but when I got to the turning – guess what? A man waving a red stick, displaying the crossed arms signal. Road closed. It was starting to get late so I headed to the nearest town, found the station and then discovered that every hotel I tried – at least half a dozen – was full. Didn’t they like me? I was starting to get paranoid! At the next town, Soma, I finally found a place. I asked about the price, decided it was a bit dear and went to the only other hotel to see if it was cheaper. It may have been, but it was full. Back to the first one to find that he’d now dropped the price by 400 Yen. Surprised but pleased, I checked in.
That evening,as I reflected on my ride down the coast, my thoughts turned away from the minor inconveniences I’d suffered and towards what I’d seen. The Japanese governments have, over the years, developed strategies to deal with earthquakes and tsunamis. Early warning systems, quake resistant buildings, stronger sea walls, evacuation plans. But this was a once in 1,000 years event and was just too much for existing systems to handle. Four years on, it’s easy to forget what it was like. I’d seen the huge swathes of land denuded of habitation, the areas where contamination will prevent future occupation for probably hundreds of years and the efforts to deal with the next tsunami. I was pleased that Sae suggested I go there and I hope the few thousand yen I spent has helped a bit. Even so, four years on from the event the hidden costs are still being felt by the people who not only lost their homes and loved ones but their communities too. I can only hope that, eventually, they will find peace of mind.

Calming and peaceful.

Calming and peaceful.