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