4. Journeying through Honshu

A scarecrow

A ferry ride landed us in Honshu, setting us down in Oma just hours before Typhoon 18 hit. A sizable portion of northern Japan would be demolished around us as we huddled in a small minshuku listening to the uncanny sounds of pulsating walls.

A teenage receptionist smirked as I read the inscription across her T-shirt "Relax it's only sex." I suspected her parents could not read English?

A few days later, outside a convenience store in the Aomori prefecture, Haruko had trouble with the local dialect. "I can not catch up with what they are talking about," Roy san. "I sounds not Japanese."

The western side of Honshu, following the Japan Sea, promised a less-populated option. To get there, we crossed the island from Hanamaki in the Iwate prefecture.

We followed some stunning mountain roads - where I discovered green tea was especially refreshing on a 30+ deg day - to Yokoto, and eventually rounded the striking Mount Chokai, one of Japans 100 famous mountains (Hyakumeizan) named in 1964 by the alpinist Kyuya Fukada.

As bike travellers we typically saw everyday Japan, bypassing the carefully selected showpieces set aside to impress foreigners.

Rural districts, and rural people, were another constant delight. Compared to New Zealand, farming in Japan is labour-intensive horticulture. Japanese beyond middle age appeared to be enjoying the physical work and outdoor life. And the soil was producing superbly abundant crops - rice, kumara, soy beans, and a variety of vegetables strange to Western eyes.

We would stop and talk to people, Haruko translating. Two women working in a kumara field were highly amused. "We have only seen a conversation translated in this way on television," they chuckled.

Near Atsumi in the Yamagata prefecture we stopped to chat to a woman cutting a failed rice crop. Typhoons had pounded sea water over the forming rice. Her name was Michiko. "My time is my own," she said giving us a lovely smile. "Please come to my home for tea."

We followed Michiko, riding her mamachari. Her home was a delightful old farmhouse. Trains of loaded container wagons ran precariously around a cliff-top curve above the small back garden.

Tea became a banquet lunch shared with Michiko's husband and her 93-year-old mother-in-law. Such was Japanese hospitality. On several days the good intentions of a long bike ride were foiled. Instead, we enjoyed the companionship of some of the world's friendliest people.

Along the Japan Sea we would take frequent detours through narrow, twisting, village streets. This was bike travelling at its best.

South of Niigata we chose an inland route to Nagano city and the Japan Alps. For several days we were plagued by wet weather. A highlight was a warm evening in a small Nagano city café, sitting near the entrance watching the rain dancing on the pavements.

That night the beer was served in large chilled glasses, accompanied by a simple dish of boiled green soy beans (edamame) our favourite entré. This was generously followed by grilled fish, fried crunchy noodles galore, and thinly sliced lightly-cooked beef. Japanese cuisine was proving excellent for bike travellers.

On another occasionally I tried the infamous natto - a fermented pungent bean paste that tests the taste buds of any gaijin. "It smells like shit," I was told by an attractive young Japanese woman.

In the Ueda mountains we pedalled up a very steep hill to the Mugonkan, a museum founded by Seiichiro Kuboshima to display works of art students who died in World War 2. Haruko had introduced me to the art museum about three years previously. She interpreted Mugonkan as "The silent house."

"The artists do not talk any more. We just see what they have left from their lives. But when we look at their art and their letters, we know they had great expectations for their future as artists."

Sadly, I suspected some of the young artists may have died fighting New Zealanders in the Pacific War.

We eventually arrived at the tourist resort at Kamikochi - a tough ascending ride from Matsumoto city - where, in the 1890s, the Englishman Walter Weston had inspired the founding of the Japanese Mountaineering Club.

We were, by now, familiar with cycling through tunnels, even welcoming them when it meant a short cut through a mountain. A tunnel also provided temporary shelter from the heavy rain associated with a typhoon. But one long tunnel on the road from Kamikochi to Takayama would not allow cyclists. Instead we had to detour 14 kilometres to cross the 1780 metre Abo Pass - the highest national road in Japan.

(Highest New Zealand national road, the Crown Range in the Southern Lakes district, is 1078 metres and a popular bike travelling route.)

Beyond Takayama we crossed another high pass to Shirakawago, famous for its historic thatched houses, then south to Gifu city and Lake Biwako, the largest lake in Japan. Biwako features in The Tale of Genji written in the early eleventh century by Lady Murasaki and thought to be the world's earliest novel.

While camping beside the lake we met the Korean cyclist Baek-Shung Cha, editor of the magazine Bicycle Life. Cha was following a route through Japan, visiting places that had friendly historic associations with his country.

(I had thought, from media reports, that Korea and Japan did not enjoy a good relationship. But Cha was one of several Koreans we met who told us they visit Japan because they enjoy being with Japanese people.)

Cha had a nasty gash up one arm, caused by a crash that had landed him in a flooded river, drowning his camera, his bike and, almost, himself.

We planned a return to the Japan Sea at the famous `Amanohashidate "floating" sand bridge. We continued down the sea coast for much of the rest of Honshu, apart from one venture inland in the Tottori prefecture where we abandoned bikes to climb to the daring Nageire dou temple, clinging to a cleft on Mount Mitoku. The temple had been constructed in 706.

We survived the climb when others apparently hadn't. Delighting at our achievement and at still being alive, we descended the narrow road through rural villages.

At the end of a long, challenging day we were gliding through soft late-afternoon light, wheeling easily beside farm workers returning home from the fields; wheelbarrows full of tools and produce, and the fishmonger's van at the junction. Piped music blaring from speakers mounted on high posts treated us to a popular song about the crows going to bed in their trees.

I could think of only one appropriate description - Hobbiton.

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings might have been filmed in New Zealand. But Hobbiton delightfully existed in Japan.

[3. Contented life of a bicycling nomad] [5. Courteous traffic, clumsy mishap, and a love curiosity:]

uploaded:20, 08, 2006