Monday, June 18, 2018

Highways, byways, footpaths and stairs –


Fifteen days non-stop (non rest day) between Hiroshima and Odawara.  We never would have imagined the crazy route we'd take, the weather, the bike repairs, the unbelievable extremes of biking situations we'd encounter, the temple sites, camp-landing places and ascents and descents we'd experience.  But we did it.  We made it to our goal of arriving as planned at our Japanese exchange student, Takehiro's home, on time, on the 15th of June.  His parents and Takehiro took care of us like royalty this past weekend, and the brutality of the two weeks past was shed with the beauty of hospitality in this Japanese home. Some of the highlights of our past 15 days...
The 75 km Shimanami Kaido cycle path connecting Honshu to Shokoku by 5 huge bridges.  So much fun.  Likely due to it being Saturday, we cycled the route with hundreds of other cyclists.  We chose the "beginner route" to
"slow down and ease off" - the shorelines and the easy 3% switchbacks up to the bridges made for a leisurely and thoroughly enjoyable experience.
One of the giant infrastructure roads lifting us up on a dedicated bike lane to one of the bridges connecting the islands of the cycle route.
Ojizo-samas, commonly wearing red bibs.  This shrine we passed as we rode up the Iya Valley, an incredible gorge leading to a not so incredible "vine" bridge/tourist trap.
Koyasan - wow.  An incredibly sacred location on a mountain top, following an 800 meter climb which involved 24% grade pulling up of the bikes and gear, traffic on mountain switchbacks without shoulders, and rain.  We found refuge for the night beside a deserted baseball diamond and stayed dry, cooking dinner in the dugout which had its own lighting and sink!  Japanese attention to detail included a drainage system that allowed the flooding field to pour into a covered trench...keeping us dry and super happy.
Part of the course requirements for Phys Ed 30 - an active volunteer component.  Sampson shows off part of his 10 hour volunteer commitment: cleaning up garbage.  It definitely makes a significant difference to the sites we camp, which although mostly clean, often have areas that given a 1/2 of volunteerism, look sensationally better.  Here we are camped out by a reservoir.
Pushing the bikes again!  Another opportunity to get off a busy road led to smaller and smaller roads, then mountain bike/touring, then slippery slidey inclines.  We had to unload and carry our gear over a ravine at one point.  Part of the unknown involved with taking the road less traveled!
A delicious salad and corn-based stew with chicken, mushrooms and broccoli.  We connected with Japanese "Warm Showers" hosts and got to stay in their heritage Japanese tea house/guest room.  Takumi, Setsuko and their daughter Yuno also had the answer to a better fix on Rick and Tarn's rear-derailleur which the day before had twist/broken off the bent derailleur hanger in a likely "no possible return" way.  Rick had once again worked the near impossible with another ingenious solution, Takumi had a replacement part that meant the repair was solid for the long term.
These cats were super creepy.  We traveled some bike ways on dikes along the coast and every once in a while a bunch of wild cats would appear.  We camped in a rather abondoned park area one night and they were slinking around in the woods....usually we love cats but these ones.....not such a good feeling.
Markos on top of these giant cement coast line controllers gives them some scale.  How do they move these things here?  We saw a huge metal mold for creating them withing 1/2 Km, so at least they didn't have to be moved that far.  Maybe they were made in place?  In Japan we are constantly aware of our placement in relation to sea level.  Tsunami signage of evacuation locations and placards indicating how many meters you are above sea level are common place along the roadside.
                                    

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Riding Strong on the Island of Honshu

Markos

Tarn

Sampson....our boys have become travel savvy.

Sampson and Markos learn how to make a tasty treat from Japanese workers who are staying at the same hostel we did 10 days ago.  Our days off have been farther apart, but golden when they come together.

The shrine we came upon at snack time - amazing things that show up out of the forest.

Rick and Tarn in a selfie, flying down a river road.

Misty clouds and moutains.

My rims were cracking.  Rick spent a day on our arrival to Honshu building me a new wheel.  At the same time Markos' rear hub completely failed and fortuneatly, a bike shop appeared at the right time.  The owner was super resourceful , and though he hadn't the right type of wheel at his shop, we waited a bit and one arrived by car.  Rick took Markos' former rim and used it to replace mine.  Rick's mechanic skills are extensive, as well as his patience.  He keeps us all rolling.
Japan is a surreal experience.

I’m sitting on a couch, drinking a cup of tea.  Seems like a normal thing to do, yet I haven’t had a home like this in….how long?  We’ve decided to treat ourselves to an AirBNB in central Hiroshima.  The historical significance of this location is one that we wanted to take time to digest.  Our bikes and gear have a place to be without us “babysitting” them and today, we went to the Peace Park and the museums and monuments. These locations are dedicated to Peace and designed to teach the world about the results that occur from the use of nuclear bombs. The discussions over lunch amongst my family were proof that our visit to Hiroshima had a significant impact on my children’s understanding of nuclear weapons.  From the number of Japanese school kids piling into the museum from a sea of buses, I could see that Japan is making sure they teach their youth about the significance of the use of nuclear weapons also.

We have been cycling the main island of Japan, Honshu, for just about a week.  It took me a short bit to embrace it as I had such an incredible experience on the island of Kyushu where we started our cycle journey in Japan.  Here on Honshu there seemed to be more noise, it was busier, there were thundering motorcycles….but then the Japan Cycle Network route we are currently following led us up through gentle climbing river valleys, low clouded, older looking mountains and into new landscapes.  A high karst region – prairie lands speckled with sharp limestone boulders.  An ancient samurai town with river fortifications and unique architecture.  Beautifully maintained community gardens. Seas of green rice terraces perfectly planted by amazingly designed machines.  A huge 800 year old cedar looking over an ancient Shinto shrine where we stopped by chance for a snack break.  Honshu has character of its own.

Sampson, Markos and Tarn are buckled down to their last month of studies.  Distance learning this year has taught them time management and significant communication skills.  I have no doubt that in their year ahead returning to the traditional classroom they will feel on top of their game.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Finding a Rhythm, Comfort in Slow Mo


Happy Mother's Day! A sunshine morning and a box of Maple Leaf Cream Cookies, found in a grocery on the island of Kyushu, Japan.  Flowers for my bicycle and a cherry tart for breakfast. A artistic card to look at in the map case of my handlebar bag.  A day ahead planned biking up a volcano and an afternoon soaking in an onsen....a perfect way to celebrate Mother's Day!
Days of rain, unpredictable access to juicing up our electronics, mechanical issues with the bikes, we were in a bit of slow mo and transition in our first weeks of Japan.  However, the natural beauty, the calmness of the road, the spring flowers and fresh green leaves everywhere, and the accepting culture and simplicity we feel being here in Japan has given a sense of peace to our pace.  We are not covering a lot of ground, we are still on Kyushu, and now, we've come to agree that reaching the far north in Hokaido will likely be a tour of the future.  We are committed to fully enjoying each day and taking it as it comes.  Incredible consequences occurred this past week.  As we were coming out of the grocery Rick said "Whoa - look at that...!" A giant plume of ash cloud was spewing from a volcano peak looming above the valley we were biking through.  Fortunately the spewing tower reached a threshold, flattened out and began dispersing away from our valley.  It was indeed this peak that we had planned to hike around.  Our first encounter with a English speaking business owner was exactly when we needed it, at an outdoor store at the volcano's base.  The morning was spent drying out our wet gear in his park-like store grounds, using the  best wifi we'd encountered, and receiving maps and hike descriptions, in English, of the areas of the mountain that were still open and reachable.  We count on moments like this to fill in the blanks of ideas we have in our minds.  That afternoon we biked up the volcano and found ourselves soaking in a natural hot spring onsen looking down on the valley we'd climbed above.  We were camped in the narrow picnic area space across the road.  Life can be good, really good. The next day and days after, we find amazing encounters with people and nature confirming our mode that where you are is where it is.


 Does this happen in your backyard?
Just biking down the road brought us by this shrine in the towering trees...
I guess we are already on the climb up this volcano...
Tarn at the top.  At 13 he still loves to climb up boulders.
Pink azealeas bloom everywhere.
We had no idea the campground across this lake would show up.  A long day biking and 5:30PM allowed this gorgeous shot.
However, the campground was slightly difficult to get to.  Downed trees blocked the path that lined the lake.  Another small hurdle before the reward of a quiet and peaceful place to camp.  It didn't hurt that this night's cool down was in a crater lake.
Incredible views, great bikeways.
Sampson setting up his go pro to catch the movement of clouds above the town of Taketa.
Seafood pasta sauce.  Gourmet camping for sure!


Sunday, May 13, 2018

Japan - a most hospitable country

Japan - what a treat it is to travel here.  "Thoughtful" is the word that summarizes Japan to me in my first 10 days here.  The culture just seems to have a pleasant life figured out.  For us that equates to things we appreciate:  Easy camping.  Washrooms at every park.  Familiar style groceries.  Bike shops with parts.  Beauty.  Cleanliness.  Order.  Kindness. Spring temperatures.   Really a welcome change from the tests of heat, noise, and chaos we've experienced in these past months.  We are excited for these two plus months ahead.  We will explore Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu and Hokkaido from south to north. In July we will fly home to Canada and finish with a cycle home to Calgary from Vancouver. 
A night time pic of Fukuoku tower from our first night in Japan.  We camped along the parkway of the city beaches.  Free camping, as we had read, has been easy and accommodating.  Open, immaculate restrooms are part of every park.
Water is abundant on Kyushu. Every night we hear water.  From a river, from a canal, from a mountain stream.  While we know there will be times in our Japan experience that we will be much more urban, we are truly enjoying the rural areas of the less populated areas we are currently traveling.
Japanese groceries are more similar to North American groceries, they offer an abundance of product.  Prices here are more similar to home, which was a bit of a transition for us.  It's good camping is free!  We make all our meals and have the boys shopping on a budget.  Don't worry though, good food is always a focus.  Here is a picnic lunch of baguette with canned fish salad (tomatoes, onions, carrots and cucumber), sliced cheese, and lettuce.  The basket we bought in Laos for protecting the bananas we carry daily.  It was light enough that we didn't discard it prior to the flight from Vietnam but stuck it in with the bikes for transit.
A huge Shinto shrine that we happened into as we biked up a steep hill to a free camping area we'd located off our "free camping and hot springs" map.  Though we will seek out some tourist destinations (Hiroshima, Mt. Fuji, Tokyo), these ones that pop up along the way are super fun.
The coast looking off into the sea of Japan.  We will plan our route to include coastal as well as interior areas of each of the four large islands of Japan.
Our first evening meal celebrating the excellent fish available in the markets.  We found a cabin shelter on a tidal island which had a fire ring and a grill.  We declared a day off the bikes for the next day. Sampson, Markos and Rick would be the food supply expedition, Tanya and Tarn would stay back to dry out our gear in the sun.  It's spring time and along with the bounty of flowers and fresh green leaves, we are getting days of rain.  Something we've had months without!
A scene from our seaside tidal island fire ring.  Rick's SIM card allowed us to access wifi and find out the tidal patterns.  We arrived the first evening at 5:30 pm (low tide).  The next day's low tide would be 10:15 am.  In between the island was ours with no access on or off as the pebbly bridge of land was deep beneath the waves.  Planning accordingly, the food expedition happened between 9:30 and 11:30, Sampson, Markos and Rick made it safely back on the island with provisions for our day off.
This is not how a rear derailleur is supposed to look.  This is a scene of no return.  It took Rick's extreme ingenuity of single speeding his and Tarn's tandem, and then innumerable stops to adjust it as we sought out bike shops in the population areas ahead.  Without English communication and with a bit of detective work and luck, we located a new 10-speed derailleur within 48 hours.  Along the way of course we found food to feed the family and two nights of camping that needed to be on the way to one of these hopeful bike (not motorcycle) shops.  Things that helped make success of the adventure: sunshine, the parts of the road that were not climbs, the fact that Japan does have shops with quality bike parts, and the longer shop hours, 7 days a week.  Bike shop owners have allowed us a little window into Japanese culture too - they bring out chairs for all of us to sit, offer us a beverage and snack, and are happy to share with us a viewing of their tandem bike.  For some reason tandems are banned in various prefectures of Japan but the bike shop owners all have a tandem they love to show off.  No one has pulled Rick and Tarn off the road for riding a  tandem so far...
Markos heads into the clouds.  We are approaching and area of numerous volcanoes that are shrouded in clouds at the moment. The temperatures have been super pleasant.  Sunshine or rain.  On two separate rainy days we have sought out "onsens", or public hot pool baths that are common in most towns.  They are an incredible experience where men and women, in separate bathing areas, soak, scrub, and meditate in hot and cool pools, saunas and outdoor gardens.  Because we haven't found showers in our free camping evenings, the onsen experience is even the more welcome.  Our nightly "bandana bath" in a washroom toilet stall doesn't really qualify as a deep clean.
This senior lady loaded us up with lots of extra veggie gifts when we were selecting some cucumbers from her farm stand.  It is rare that we communicate in English but the communication of humanity and kindness is fluent in Japan.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Northern Vietnam Wraps Up Our Southeast Asia Experience

We approach Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, from the south, seeking the lesser traveled routes.  Here our little road crosses a  river in the delta by ferry. Motorbikes know this route too.

Langsat, mangoes, watermelons, dragonfruit...fruit has been abundant in our last three months of Southeast Asia.  We've read that it is quite expensive to buy fresh fruit in Japan so we are making sure to enjoy the fruit before we leave!

Although rain has been rare, we were soaked on our day biking into the old quarter of Hanoi.  Narrow streets were lined with innumerable little shops peddling North Face gear and Under Armour clothing.  Noodle shops were abundant and we decided to maximize the abundance of delicious, inexpensive rice, veggie, rice noodle and beef/pork dishes.

Looking down from our 3rd floor balcony we saw the woman in orange frying up tofu, then delivering it down our narrow street with one of these silver trays loaded with tofu, mint greens, rice noodles and sweet dipping sauce.  Upon investigation we got in on the treat too!  Rick went downstairs and returned with a tray for us.  25VMD (about 1USD) made for an amazingly delicious breakfast for two.  When Sampson, Markos and Tarn woke up we ordered the tray for 40 VMD and it included fried egg rolls, sliced beef and chunks of sausage, easily feeding the three boys breakfast for less than 2USD.  Needless to say, we are eating out every meal in these final days in Vietnam.

Hanoi is busy with motorbikes and color.

And the finale - a celebration of our journey through Southeast Asia - a 3 day tour of Ha Long Bay.  Our cruise included kayak excursions and close up viewing of the amazing karst landscape.  The crew was super fun.  This is an adventure not-to-be-missed for visitors to Vietnam!

Today marks success. We did it.  We made it.  Bangkok, Thailand to Hanoi, Vietnam.  Almost four months cycling though the countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam (southern), Laos, and Vietnam in the north.  Though grouped in the same area of the world.  We will remember the distinct differences of each.  The chaos on the roads of Cambodia and the silly pajama/slipper daily wear fashion.  The plastic garbage throughout.  The horrendous fake-swallow amplified chirping houses of southern Vietnam, the loud streets and traffic of Northern Vietnam. The Karaoke. The peacefulness and simplicity of Laos.  The climbs and cabbabe.  The kindness throughout. Southeast Asia had been an adventure.

We sit at the airport, ready to fly to Japan, our final "foreign" country to cycle (on this trip!)  No more guest houses...way to expensive.  We'll be camping.  Will we be eating out at all?  We'll figure it out.  We arrive in Fukuoka, Japan tomorrow at 10:00 am.  I'll be sure to let you know how it goes!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Laos Leaves a Lasting Impression

Plain of Jars site 2 near Phonsavan, Laos
The karst limestone formations that we've traveled through for the past weeks.
Simple village living in the mountains of northern Laos. Nothing for sale here.  I guess they live off the land?  So much we don't know and just make up answers for.
Muang Khoun - a historic town that where we took a day off.  Low key, interesting place, a great place to rejuvenate the body.
Another Plain of Jars shot - we spent a day exploring 3 sites near Phonsavan.  We've reached a point in our trip where "moving forward" is not the goal, but exploring and making the most of where we are.
Beauty comes in tiny sizes also in Laos.
Downtime while we wait to set up tents at dusk (the kids viewing us from the bridge above no doubt would come in closer if we set them up mid- afternoon.  Sometimes we need our own space!) We are high in the mountains and there is no guest house for miles.  A young fellow knew exactly where to recommend we camp - no English of course but obviously a "like" mind.
Looks like a sea of green!  Lots of veggie choice now that we have re-entered Vietnam in the north.  In contrast Laos was simple, calm, fewer people and fewer food options to choose from.


We are entering the final phase of our Southeast Asia experience - the approach to Hanoi (now just five bike days away), booking a special treat - a cruise in Ha Long Bay, and confirming flights to Japan, set now for May 2.  All our clothes are in tatters.  The sun and nightly washing out of sweat and dust has rendered them to rags.  Vietnam is a great place to replenish clothing.  This afternoon we were able to bargain prices to the right range - less than $5US an item.  Everyone needs a warm layer for the cooler Spring climate we will find in Japan, AND, the gain in muscle and loss of mid section inches mean clothes need to fit our current physique.