It was the standoff of the century. On one side of the gate was your hero, with his bicycle laden down with the weight of the gifts he had received from his opponent: the little old lady who looked after the temple and had let me camp in the grounds for the evening, intermittently supplying me with various snacks throughout my stay. I’d bow as low as possible to express the deepest gratitude I could muster; my ab muscles were aching from the gratitude. Each time I raised my head, though, I saw that, once again, my host had responded in kind. On it went, for the best time of five minutes, under the bright orange Tori Gate. I was on my best behaviour in a country that takes manners seriously. This was the showdown between British and Japanese politeness and the latter was a force to be reckoned with. After each attempt to be the last person bowing I’d shuffle a few steps back, hoping to end the cycle, but by the umpteenth time I realised this was an unwinnable battle and I bowed out (sorry) and let my final host take the final courteous gesture of our manners-off, got on my bike and pedalled away down the road that seemed a little narrower; past the cars that seemed a little smaller; in a village that seemed a little cleaner than what I had been used to anywhere else in the world.
I had expected Japan to be a polite, pleasant place but, during those first few days here, I never thought Japan would exceed these expectations so much.
A few days earlier I had landed in Osaka and rebuilt my bike. Contrary to conventional mechanical wisdom (and the nightmare I had getting Murphy flight-ready in Kuala Lumpur, thanks to a seized on pedal), putting something back together again actually proved to be the easy bit. This was the first border crossing of this whole trip that was not between geographically neighbouring countries and, as a result, the difference between the two countries was profound and sudden rather than subtle and gradual. Not wanting to potentially cause offence by making some accidental and obscure faux pas, I subtly observed and then copied what the locals did when it came to the rules of the road, which turned out to involve a lot of waiting. In Japan it seems that, even on a deserted road without the hint of an oncoming vehicle, a red light is a red light and you’d better not try to cross the road.
Normally it takes me a while to adjust to how any country works but this time it didn’t involve me having to grit my teeth and get used to something – like spitting, shouting, or horns from trucks going off in perforating distance from your ear drums – it was an adaptation that involved improving my own behaviour. I guess after over a year on the Asian mainland, I’d developed a laissez-faire attitude to rules and very quickly learned that I’d have to change this in the land of the rising sun. So on that first day I stopped at every red light on every deserted junction and the as a result the 30km it took from the airport to my hosts house took well over 6 hours.
But I was also late to arrive at my hosts because I met Tomoji. He was cycling down the road, live streaming on his phone that sat at eye-level, thanks to a special holder that stemmed from his handlebars. After a few exchanges of pleasantries and small talk at every red light (which was often) he invited me to join him for some food in a restaurant unlike anything I have been to before and a very clear reminder that I was in Japan now. Tomoji would press a few buttons on the big screen that was above each table and a few minutes later a little Shinkansen (bullet train) would come zooming to our table with our sushi order. It was a great introduction to Japan’s food (and alternatives to hiring waiting staff); it was a hugely warm welcome to Japan, too, given Tomoji refused to let me pay a single Yen for the food. The hospitality continued when, after feeding me home made Takoyaki on my first night, my hosts, Emi and Koji – who had cycled around the world 18 years ago – let me stay an extra night so I could explore Osaka. It has probably been the most welcoming introduction to any country I have experienced and I don’t envy the place that follows Japan.
It was sakura season and as I left Osaka these cherry blossoms made the most drab, grey apartment blocks in the suburbs look worthy to be on a postcard. And then I got into the countryside. The mix of trees produced a patchwork of colour…well, mostly shades of green but at this time of year there was the addition of the explosion of bright pink and white. But even the patchwork of green was enough to make it look pleasant. Whats more, every house had a pristinely kept garden. There was no such thing as litter in the Japanese countryside, that’s overall appearance made the whole place feel like it had been curated. Every view from every hill just seemed perfectly manicured.
After the night in the aforementioned temple, Koya-San was the first stop. It is one of the holiest mountains in Japanese buddhism that’s elaborate wooden temples were a huge reward for the climb up steep sided valleys and through coniferous forests. Occasional I’d see a pilgrim, dressed in white, a pointed hat, and a big wooden walking stick crossing the road and disappearing down a forest track. The footpath network seems as extensive as the UK’s, albeit in Japan they usually concise with a high number of temples made me tempted to ditch the bike and buy some walking shoes. You can sleep in the temples in Koya-San and experience spartan monk life but, after seeing the price, I opted for the equally stoic experience of sleeping in an empty car park. Next was the accidental discovery of Yoshiko National Park, one of the best places in the area to see the sakura. My timing was almost perfect, except that it was the weekend. Even though the place was packed at the weekend, it was packed with Japanese tourists, so there wasn’t any element of pushing, like another country near Japan that I spent some time in that will remain nameless…
Temples were the name of the game for the first week on the road. Nara, home to one of the world’s largest wooden structures, and Kyoto’s lion’s share of world heritage sites quickly followed and the sight of temples, Tori gates, rock gardens, and pagodas filled each day. The busier ones were definitely unmissable in the scale of UNESCO grandeur, but the smaller ones that you often find in an average neighbourhood or village, away from the selfie-stick wielding crowds, are all worth a visit for the atmosphere. When you step into a silent and perfectly manicured temple grounds and the only thing you have to share it with are gently falling cherry blossoms, you’ll get what I’m on about.
That said, this first ten days in Japan has indeed been very temple heavy and, with the exception that they often remain a good place for a tent, I’ll be taking a break from them as I pedal south towards Shikoku and into remoteness without the long commute (I’ll explain next time).