Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Last Weeks of School - focus and fun

Hydrangeas are in full force.  We arrived in Japan just after the cherry blossoms but no one ever talks about the whole rest of the crazy blooming spring in Japan.  It seems each week we are here brings the extreme explosion of the next bloom.  First it was the pink azealea bushes, then the lilies, iris, jasmine, roses and now the hydrangeas. The colorful flowers line the roads, fill the forest and grow out of the mossy walls and planted potted gardens.
Pictured is a taste sensation.  Our travels in Japan so far have been fueled by feasts we have created through grocery purchases and our western ingenuity.  When we stayed with our Japanese exchange student's family, his parents treated us to many Japanese culinary treats.  At the restaurant above, we sat at one of two small dining areas, with our feet below the "ground" level, in a space that opened below the table.  We sat on woven flat mats.  If you wanted a backrest, chairs without legs were handy to tuck under your bum and lean back on.
The small tower of plates emptied by four voracious teenagers.  Takehiro's family took us to a "conveyor belt" sushi restaurant where the boys ordered single plates of items on a touch screen.  Then, within minutes, their request appeared table side on a conveyor belt that shot out from the unseen kitchen.
A wet, wet frog crossing the road.  June is rainy season in Japan.  We've had numerous days climbing mountains in soaking rain.  Our creative campsites require some form of shelter.  Fortunately, the sun does come out and we dry out, though the waft of mildew seems to be ever present.  Yesterday was a day of cleanse.  We found a coin laundry and gave our entire wardrobe a wash and super dry.  Following we sought out an onsen (public spa) and scrubbed our bodies and cleared our minds in the restive setting of complete relaxation.
Mount Fuji.  Finally a clear day to see it well.  We've traveled in the Fuji area for several weeks now and glimpses of it are always special.
Sign posts on our ridge hike.  We got familiar with reading the Japanese symbols for the name of our route. The signage was frequently in Japanese only. The picture above this one  are the supplies we bought for our two day hike.  We created make-shift backpacks out of our panniers and got creative with what we could buy and carry.  The small mountain town we based out of had pretty limited, and pricey, supplies.  When you are used to biking, planning a 2 day hike requires a lot of effort.  We found great storage for our gear, scoped out the trail head and organized our hike supplies - all within the parameters of being back in the mountain town for scheduled school Skype calls, receiving responses from teachers on writing drafts, and being present for scheduled science quizzes. (Never mind that we are camped out at a river-side shelter, it's raining on and off and we don't speak Japanese.)

Sampson, Markos and Tarn are buckled down to their final school projects.  We are stationed at a riverside campsite where the excellent wifi from the nearby visitor centre is accessible round the clock.  The our location – a town named Okutama.  Here hikers and bikers from Tokyo take the train for weekend adventures.  Large groups of expeditioners arrive with each train, get their gear adjusted and head off into the hills, clearing the plaza for the next group.  We plan our “Stoney Ridge” hike to start Monday, when the trails will be clear and the hut at the top empty.  We have observed that many Japanese get out on weekends, and these are good times to avoid popular sites.

We are feeling the beginning of our last days in Japan. Who knows when each of us will get to return? We all are lingering in the present and wanting to make the most of our days here. Ahead...a cycle into the urban area surrounding Tokyo. Final exams supervised by new friends Joan and Rich, storage of our gear,  sightseeing in Tokyo for two days and finally, taking a bus to the airport and boarding a flight to the last leg of our trip: Vancouver to Calgary.

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.