Round The World by Bike: The Records from my Travel-Worn Satchel – Japan

The Records from my Travel-Worn Satchel

THIS STAGE- Hokkaido, Japan, to Tokyo
NEXT STAGE- Tokyo to Kyshu to China to Beijing.

Miyagi: Karate come from China, sixteenth century…
Daniel: I thought it came from Buddhist temples and stuff like that.
Miyagi: You too much TV
– (Karate Kid)

“The trouble with the Rat Race is that even if you win you are still a rat”
– Lily Tomlin

Usually I establish a pretty good idea of what I will write about a country during the first few weeks of riding through it. But now as I sit down to write about Japan I have no idea what to write.

Japan is a land of clichés. Mount Fuji and kimonos and Bullet Trains and neon lights and old temples and sumo and cherry trees and Mount Fuji… whoops – we’ve gone full circle and are you asleep yet? Before I reached Japan I knew nothing about it except for these painfully boring clichés. Google wearily reports 140,000 sites describing “Japan, land of contrasts”. But now I know why writers use them – because it is so hard to summarise anything else as being the “real” Japan.

Japan has thrived partly due to an accepted separation of one’s personal views (‘honne’) from the opinions demanded by your position within the group or society (‘tatemae’). This helps the intricate cogs of the massive machine that is ‘Japan Inc’ to run smoothly. I like to think of the kimonos and Mount Fuji as the ‘tatemae’ of Japan – the official face of Japan. But I am not even close yet to figuring out the ‘honne’. I have not got any further than a headful of observations. It is such a fascinating country.

Japan is really not very expensive at all, unless you want to buy anything. But by eating nothing except eight packets of instant noodles a day I am keeping my costs low and my blood pressure high. I have been sleeping on the floor of railway stations, waking with the day’s first commuters and fetching hot water for my breakfast noodles from one of the infinite number of amazingly convenient convenience stores.

Japan is easy to travel round, despite the cumbersome Chinese writing (kanji) that is beautiful yet unfathomable. I was impressed with myself however for quickly figuring out which toilets were for men and which for women. The symbol for the men’s toilet usually is a vertical line (representing the torso) with what looks like two arms sticking out at the side, two legs in trousers, and a head on top. Ladies toilets are usually depicted by a torso, two arms, two legs in a skirt, and a head on top. I think I will have the language cracked in no time.

Spring arrived on the day I rode down into Tokyo. I rode out of winter’s monstrous anger and away from four months of snow and ice. No more shocking sudden skids on black ice and clumsy crashes into piles of slushy snow. The fields had turned GREEN – a lush feast for my eyes after so much whiteness. Blue sky and the sun warm on my face as I sat on a pavement eating my noodles and looking at the perfect far-off cone of Mount Fuji. I enjoyed the moment, and I enjoyed knowing that winter was behind me at last.

I arrived in Tokyo to stay with a school friend, Michitaka Nakao. He left my school when he was 14 to return to Japan and I had not seen him since then when we sat next to one another in German lessons. One of the first questions he asked was “Why are you cycling round the world?” That is a normal enough question, but usually it is asked like this:
“WHY are you cycling round the world?”
But Mitch asked, “Why are YOU cycling round the world?”

The last time he had seen me I was apparently ‘a skinny, brainy version of Ron Weasley’ [the annoying ginger kid in Harry Potter] hence his surprise at my undertaking. Japan is full of incredibly friendly and polite people, so it was nice to meet a rude Japanese person at last!

We visited a Buddhist temple high on a hill in a deep green cedar forest. Carved trunks of large trees formed the temple walls and small black waterfalls spilled white into deep pools. The soothing noise and calm gardens and the rolling onomatopoeias of shining timeworn gongs all washed over me in the gentle afternoon garden light. Slips of paper predict your fortune and you tie them to the twigs of trees to make them come true. My future was decreed to be mediocre. I don’t know why I bothered to tie that one to the tree. After the old temple I am getting worryingly close to having to now write about the contrast of the shining streaking Bullet Trains packed with school kids, immaculately dressed beautiful women and expressionless men squashed silent in their plain dark suits and dreaming of retirement. I will resist!

But the businessman is unmissable in Tokyo – putting in hours at the office that would daunt the keenest of London’s high-fliers and that are completely inexplicable to me. To not take your full allowance of annual holiday for fear of letting down your office, to work forever beneath someone incompetent simply because he has sat in the office for more years than you, to be paid for longevity rather than ingenuity, to leave home before your children wake, to spend the nights in bars with your colleagues each night and to then arrive home after your children are in bed is both normal and expected. Squashed in an amazingly cramped rush hour train with two politely blank Japanese faces buried in my armpits (it is good to be taller than everybody else on those trains) I was able to really appreciate my position and be grateful for my journey.

Perhaps with such a career-oriented nation it is not really a surprise that my visits to all-Japanese schools have not been a success. The students stared at me, thought me very weird, and had very little interest in or comprehension of what I am doing. I have never experienced that in any school I have visited before around the world. However, my biggest surprise in visiting schools was the complete lack of discipline: worse even than in England. Girls preen, boys chat or sleep. Japan is not always true to its stereotypes. I was surprised, but perhaps not as surprised as the class that got yelled at by the weird foreign cycling guy. They were ruder even than the “experimental school” I once visited in the US where teachers were called by their first names, lessons were voluntary, there were no classrooms or rules and the smoke in the staff room smelt different than normal cigarettes…

At FC Tokyo, the teams are introduced in English to anglicise the atmosphere and then the crowd stands as one and sings – in passionate footballing earnestness – the club anthem “You’ll never walk alone”. That they have so blatantly stolen their identify from Liverpool FC half way round the world did not bother them one little bit. It was charming and endearing and bizarre.

At the Sumo championships things were certainly more Japanese, if no less bizarre. I quickly changed from finding the whole performance very comical to finding it impressive as well as very comical. Men so fat that they cannot even wipe their own backsides and yet who are at the same time elite athletes certainly make for a spectacle. The whole performance is very ritualised, and is as much of a dignified tradition as a combat sport: the fighters spend an age before their bout strutting round the ring, psyching themselves up, stamping their feet, throwing salt, scowling, rinsing and wiping their mouths. The fight itself is a short explosion of wobbling flesh, huge ‘wedgies’ and surprising speed, power and balance. The crowd yells its approval and, in the event of a major upset such as the defeat of the top-ranked wrestler (‘yokozuna’), may frisbee their cushions into the ring in delirious excitement or disgust. I like Japanese people even more when they relax and get excited.

Everything is ranked in Japan. I know for example that I have seen one of Japan’s “Top 3 Cherry Trees” (Miharu) and that I was too lazy to go and see one of Asia’s “Top 3 Night-time views of a City” (Hakodate). I saw, but did not hear, one of Japan’s “Top 100 Best Soundscapes” (the church bell in Hakodate). It does make travelling very simple. Next week, for instance, I know exactly where to go to get the “Best View of Mount Fuji” and the streets of Tokyo are indented with tiles telling you when you have reached a good place to take a photo.

Before I write about Japanese food I should say that I do not like fish. That is like someone who hates cheese, wine and garlic saying that French cuisine is terrible, or somebody who hates greasy, bland, grey food decrying British cooking. And I have actually enjoyed most terrestrial foodstuffs served to me here. People who have been in Japan a long time adore the food; I have been here only a few weeks. Bearing all that in mind…..

There are several important rules for eating in Japan that have nothing to do with chopstick etiquette. Rule #74 is “Eat first, then ask what it was you have just eaten”. This has served me well with jellyfish tentacles, tongue, rotten beans, raw squid in squid liver sauce, sea urchin and chicken neck cartilage. ‘Cold and chewy’ features regularly as a texture of choice. The Japanese are experts at eating things that never would have occurred to me as being edible. And then I discovered a nice, harmless, and obviously edible thing like beans being used as a pillow filler. I sincerely expect to be served a bowlful of pillow feathers for lunch before I leave Japan. And I will eat them with a straight face, smile and say “Oishi!” (“delicious!”).

At a little backstreet fairground I watched an old woman flip balls of fried octopus over and over on the grill at high speed with a pair of long chopsticks and I watched children playing games at different stalls. You could fish with hook and line to catch a live goldfish or an eel or you could try to win a terrapin, a mouse, or a giant beetle (to eat..?).

I walked in the early evening streaming crowds of Tokyo, down a street of Louis Vitton, Gucci and Cartier stores, accompanied by what Douglas Coupland describes in ‘Generation X’ as Tokyo’s street smell of ‘udon’ noodle broth and faint sewage. I stared into a bright-lit window at a handbag that cost more money than a couple of trans-continental journeys. Louis Vitton handbags are a dime-a-dozen, ten-a-penny and yet their unoriginality only seems to serve to enhance their popularity. But they are definitely not a dime for a dozen.

In a canyon of tower blocks rolling neon lights rise all around me. I stand still and rotate slowly in the rushing waters of the hurrying, silent crowds of Shibuya Crossing, with my head tipped back and enjoying the Japanese version of Siberia’s Northern Lights. Tokyo is a seething city but it is also a very quiet city. It is like watching a concert with the sound off – something seems to be missing.

30 million people streaming around me and above me and under me 24 hours a day, 30 slide shows and interviews in 3 weeks, 7 different host families and a city too fun to waste time sleeping has all been a shock to the system after the wide-horizoned wilderness months of the Yukon, Alaska and Siberia. As I prepare to leave Tokyo half of me is yearning for China’s Taklamakan desert whilst the other half of me has been reminded of the pleasures of a luxurious city life and is daunted to return to the realities of the world. My Japanese visa expires on March 10th, so I have until then to summon the courage to take on the Asian mainland. That, and to try and think of something a little more cohesive to write on my next update. To try and describe a country so Oriental and so Westernised, so modern and so traditional, so conservative and so wacky, so busy and so silent in just a few paragraphs is beyond me. So Three Cheers for the old lady in her kimono on a tiny mobile phone and the bullet train zipping past Fuji on her way to visit an old temple and cherry blossom tree! Japan – a land of contrasts. Google pages – 140,001. Kampai!

I am back on my own again now – Rob has taken the more wild option of heading to the Sea of Japan. I decided to spend longer in Tokyo to try and promote Hope and Homes here.

THE TSUNAMI in Asia has shocked the world into a frenzy of generosity. It is wonderful to see such a united display of support for suffering people. Of course I hope that people give generously to help so many people rebuild their shattered lives, but I also want to offer these points for consideration:

– Compared to somewhere like Darfur, Sudan, the tsunami has a relatively small death toll. Yet the suffering of Africa goes on ignored by most of us as ever. 250 children are orphaned every single hour by AIDS. That is like having a tsunami every 18 months or so. Deaths of children from unclean drinking water are equivalent to a tsunami every three weeks.

– While we all give money now to the tsunami, we must not renege on our contributions to other long-term groups that we support. Their work went on before, is going on now, and will still be going in a future years when the tsunami is long gone.

– The British and American governments have been very generous in supporting the tsunami relief work. This is admirable. The money pledged for the tsunami disaster by the United States is the equivalent of one and a half day’s spending in Iraq at the moment. The money the UK has given equates to five and a half days of our involvement in the war.


My journey is a constant education. Here is the latest word I have learned: “Googlewhack” Somebody emailed me and told me that ‘Rockhopper Hotchpotch’ meant that I was now a Googlewhack… If you type two words into Google and get back only one single result, then that is a Googlewhack. Sad, nerdy, worryingly addictive.


Russian aurora
lights, colours, Japanese rush –
Where am I happy?

Breath clouds the black night
Suits, white shirts, Japan rushes past,
Standing below lights

Lights reflect black puddles
Bustling traffic splashes –
Japanese Christmas

Star-drenched trees ahead
Susukino Christmas lights,
Drunk suits stumble home

Snow-flecked, wind-ripped sky:
the fishing boat’s hull gleams white
rolling on black waves

For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
If you are in need of a bit of self-help, these books were quite nice:
The 5 people you meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
Tuesdays with Morrie – Mitch Albom
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho.

“An Uncontrollable Smile”

Walking down the platform.
Looking ahead but looking all around
Your face is empty,
Because you don’t see me.

Diamonds pour from your blue eyes
And your mouth explodes into
an uncontrollable smile:
You see me waiting
for you.

You walk a little faster,
But you still have your dignity.
Dignity and an uncontrollable smile.
You walk a little faster.

A skip breaks your step.
your bag is heavy in your hand
(for you are here to stay).
Your heart is surging,
Your diamond eyes,
The uncontrollable smile,
Are all for me.

Dignity is crushed by your heart’s surge,
And the skip becomes
you running
at me,
and I will
never forget
your diamond eyes

As I wrap you in my arms,
Together again,
Our mouths again
Two uncontrollable smiles.

[sorry – that was not much about Japan or biking!]