Cycle-touring through Japan for over a month and a half, we had time to take in its quirky novelties, meet the people and spend a long time observing the countryside. Here are the top ten things that surprised us the most:
1 The back-country divide
Rolling out of town, pedalling past car dealers, discount shops and the odd convenience store you will slowly enter rural Japan. This is not the country of stereotypical cities full of glaring lights and suited salarymen. A young woman in high heels waxes a run-down sedan. A few blocks down, a small, wrinkled grandma is slowly weeding her front garden, hidden beneath the brim of her hat and gloves. Often it is just empty, still and quiet.
As explained in Patrick Smith’s book Japan, “the Japanese built omote nihon, the front of Japan. All the rest became ura nihon, the back of Japan. It means village in Japan […] when used today it implies more than a geographic area. The better translation is “hidden Japan” – The Japan of bamboo groves, rice terraces, and one-lane tracks, of fireflies, the smell of straw, and raw rice wine”. The original front and back was defined by the Tokaido, the historic route that runs from Tokyo (then Edo) to Osaka. It is now the most densely populated part of Japan. About 75% of the population live in cities, with only one quarter scattered in the small towns and villages. With the mountainous geography defining the amount of space available for building, most of them are in the central, modernised belt around the Tokaido.
Having spent a lot of time in the back of Japan, outside the Tokaido, we have had time to observe it as we rolled past. It seems like another country, often clearly ailing and forgotten. Rust-ridden sheds and abandoned houses are scattered along the road. Sometimes it is the work of natural disasters (tsunami or earthquake) but in others it just seems to be a sheer lack of funds or will-power. The unkempt gardens and make-shift repairs are more reminiscent of post-war Balkan states than what we expected from a nation that has created so many household brands and was the worlds second biggest economy for decades. With the country’s population expected to drop in the next few decades, will these villages become even emptier?
2 On good behaviour
Hannibal Lecter, the famous fictitious psychopath would go very hungry in Japan. This is not because there is a lack of appetising fare. Quite the opposite in fact. Wth a variety of traditional foods to sample, be it ramen, champon, yakatori, gyozas or of course sushi and sashimi there is a huge choice on offer. It has more to do with the people. No sooner will you have set foot in Japan you will be hailed by a storm of thank-you’s, pleases’s and nodding smiles. People are really polite and gracious. This cannot be understated and forms part of almost any interaction. But is it just a façade, a mask? Much has been written about the Japanese’s habit of hiding their real feelings behind a wall of good manners. This was already suspected by the first Europeans to arrive, the Jesuits. As written by Rodriguez, who said they had “three hearts, a false one in their mouths for the world to see, another within their breast only for their friends, and a third in the depths of their hearts, reserved for themselves…”. This gives a false connotation of guile and deceit. In our meagre experience anything could be further from the truth, at least concerning their willingness to help. Rather than a wall, it is a window that shows a good interior. Be it helping with directions, lending us tools by the side of the road or an impromptu feast at a campsite we have always been met by a polite and warm welcome. This brings us back to famous the cannibal. Because as he says himself, “one should always try to eat the rude”.
3 Pachinko what?
Pachinko, or pachinko slot if you want even more craziness, is a particular mix of gaming and gambling that we stumbled upon as a loud and tobacco smelling shock. As you walk through the sliding doors, if you are not deterred by this physical barrier of cacophonic beeps, flashing lights and the smell of rancid cigarette smoke, you can discover lines of electronic gaming machines. Perched in front of them, human beings push and pull the different buttons and levers. The game is pretty simple, and has similar elements with pinball. By pulling on the initial lever a small metal ball is pushed up into the machine. As it falls, it bounces through a series of pins and if it falls into one of the collectors, the player is rewarded with a certain amount of new balls. The goal is of course to accumulate as many balls, which you guess it, cannot be turned into money. At least, not directly. More complex machines mix in secondary games, including a slot machine, which I have no idea how it really works. I admit the hectic displays and thunderous noise have a certain, demented appeal, and I can almost understand getting lost in such a world.
As we walked around a pachinko parlour we gazed at the players, most past their prime, slouched in front of the contraption, concentrated on the game. Some, where literally surrounded by boxes of balls, stacked neatly around them. Each ball is worth 4 yen, around 3,5 cents of a euro. They had clearly been playing most of the day to tally up such a hoard. Once the day is over, they can either claim a prize, but no cash. Fortunately, another business next door can then exchange the prize (a token) into cash. This gets around the Japanese gambling laws and everyone is happy. Pachinko accounts for 3% of the country’s GDP, which gives you an idea of how big this thing is!
The most amazing thing is how widespread this addiction clearly has become. Cycling through the empty countryside (see previous section!) we would come across a square building, the car park already half full at half-past nine in the morning. Pedalling past we could just make out the lines of fanatical fiends jamming balls into the machines as fast as they could go. A whiff of smoke would escape, before the doors slid shut again, locking in the noise.
Outside the sun was shining and not a person in sight.
4 Dokkoisho, dokkoisho!
Summer is time for matsuri or Japanese festivals. All over the country different events take place, centred on traditional celebrations, giving people the excuse to pour out into the street and grab a beer and some grilled meat. Some of the most famous take place in the north such as Aomori’s Nebuta festival or the Kanto in Akita. Having missed out on several of these events due to bad timing, we were lucky enough to enjoy incredible displays of skill and dancing in Akita and Tokushima at the Kanto and Awa Odori celebrations.
As Smith says, “it is a country of ordinary people with ordinary desires […], we call the familiar, official Japan the Japan of “the great tradition”. Beneath it is the Japan of “the little tradition”, the Japan we do not easily discern”. Festivals fall somewhere between the two. Although they are often rooted in ancient tradition, with certain etiquette and rules handed down from previous ages, it is clearly the day-to-day custom and joy of life that drives them forward. People lining the road-side picnicking for hours, drinking beer or sake, dancing and singing together gave us a glimpse of a very lively community which takes time and effort to prepare and participate in these events. There is warmth in the air; people are there to enjoy themselves. It felt to me somewhat like Spain, where multiple summer festivals are also the norm and everyone participates in the street.
The Kanto is an epic event to celebrate the rice harvest and ask for a good yield. Groups of performers arrive equipped with bamboo poles adorned with lanterns and accompanied by beating drums (taiko) and wailing flutes (fue). As night falls the lanterns start to glow and the poles raised vertical. The crowd chant. Dokkoisho, dokkoisho! Extra sections are slotted into the poles to make them even taller. Then comes the hard part: the poles are balanced by the performers holding them straight up in the air. There are different balancing positions: in one’s palm, on the fore-head and on the upper thigh. Taking into account the complete construction weighs around 50 kg, it is an amazing feat to see. If a particular Kanto master is feeling confident they will whisk out a parasol and fan, dancing with both while keeping the lanterns vertical. For more info see here.
Head south a couple of weeks later to the streets of Tokushima, which will be flooded by battalions of dancers. Each group is dressed in their own particular bright attire; beautiful hats and dresses are everywhere. The dancing starts slowly, with the different groups showing off their dance moves as they move around the town. There are so many performers that they mingle with the spectators, creating a swirling mix of colour. The high speed beating of the kane bell gives a slightly hectic rhythm as the night goes on. As more and more groups dance past, the performance breaks down into one continuous swirl of moving figures. Spontaneous dancing matches between groups pick up the pace and everything becomes frenzied. The hot night drips with sweat and beer and we soon found ourselves swimming in the sea of people. Ayattosa, Ayattosa!
5 Love is plastic
Last year, a Japanese song from 1984 became an online sensation. It originally had no fame outside the country but thanks to the net’s algorithms it rose to the top and has since garnered millions of views. It is Plastic Love, by Mariya Takeuchi. It is a song about affection and apathy, and it is a fitting name for the Japanese’s love affair with plastic, especially packaging. Bag after bag will be used to encapsulate your groceries, which are probably already in a multiple packets holding individually wrapped items. Sometimes it felt there was more package than actual contents. There is seemingly a stunning indifference for the amount waste generated. Surprisingly when checking data online it seems that many European countries exceed the amount of plastic used per capita in Japan. Taking into account the amount we have seen being used here, it is shocking and begs the question where is all this plastic consumed? You can check out the data here and learn who and how the ocean is being polluted with plastic. It is interesting and also very alarming.
As most products are wrapped up and covered in labels, it is sometimes hard to know what’s inside and meant we spent a lot of time in the supermarket peering down the aisle to determine what was inside all the pots and packages. Due to the small portions and large amount of plastic we would find ourselves shaking each item to try and determine if there was actually anything to be eaten .
The upside of all this is that against all odds, taking into account the sheer amount of waste generated, very little of it is present by the side of the road or in the countryside. Japanese cleanliness extends to the roadside and there is almost no trash to be seen. They conscientiously clean parks and beaches. As the sun rises, old men armed with rakes and buckets can be seen meticulously at work, painstakingly cleaning and sorting through the sand or grass. Japan is clean again.
6 A green invasion
Long tendrils slowly claw back some inches from the mass of concrete that has been plastered onto the road-side. In some places the green invasion has won, and the cemented structures have disappeared beneath the attack of persistent plants. Every single crack in a grey structures is a weak point trough which to flourish and keep growing. Japan is indeed very green. Be it in the forests of Hokkaido or Tohoku or in the southern islands of Shikoku or Kyushu, the vegetable kingdom is constantly trying to take back the lost ground. This is not always easy as the country has been severely submitted to a huge amount of construction and attempts to control the landscape. Entire hills are covered in reinforced structures to combat landslides and the coast is protected from waves and tsunamis. Rivers are often simply cemented canals where there is no longer any sand or stones visible, consisting of sharp edged pathways for the water to flow through. This is understandable in some places as the islands do suffer from violent and destructive weather. It is especially visible on some coastal roads where the entire beach has been covered in cemented structures to brake the power of the waves. An attempt to protect the population is only natural. But as explained in Smith’s book, the excessive road works and massive construction projects are often driven by the corrupt government and the need to keep the economic machine still moving. This paves the way (literaly!) to excessive and truly exaggerated building.
One of the very risks that these structures search to deter is flooding due to the large volume of rain that can fall. The constant downpour (we counted over 20 days of rain during our trip, sometimes extremely heavy) saturates the ground and can swell rivers above critical levels. Fortunately, together with the warm temperatures it promotes growth and the plants can reclaim part of the land, hiding the scars inflicted on the landscape. Even so, many parts are severely damaged and the few places that are still relatively unspoilt such as the Shimanto river should be protected.
8 Improbable supplies
Anyone who has been to Japan will have noticed the sheer amount of vending machines everywhere. They line the streets, dispensing cold drinks and coffee to any passer-by that needs to slake their thirst. They are even present inside restaurants where you are served at the table but then have get up to buy yourself a beer in the corner. Make sure you have some change!
Japan has indeed got the highest density of vending machines in the world, with over 5 million; that’s one for every 25 people! They light up the night in quiet back alleys and yes, the middle of an empty road somewhere in the back of beyond. For us the most surprising thing was not just the sheer number but the fact that they would be placed in improbable, rural places. Cycling up a steep road in Shikoku we passed a group of them (each with its own rubbish bin), the last village several kilometres away. A beautiful backdrop of rice fields clashed with their square brutality. From then on we would notice their presence on sinuous coastal roads, in the middle of fields or just placed on the edges of parks or waste ground. Their bright glare would sometimes be the only light we could see when camping in a park or temple grounds.
7 Swarming with life
In a country that boasts such dangerous animals as bears and box jellyfish, the true killer is much smaller. The beast that causes the most fatalities is in fact an insect, the giant Japanese hornet, known in its native land as ōsuzumebachi, or “great sparrow bee”! They are very aggressive and fly much faster than normal wasps. They kill between 30-50 people a year, often due to allergic reactions. In such a populous country this is actually anecdotal, but seeing them buzz around us on the bike was sometimes a bit close for comfort. Their speed means it is almost impossible to swat at them, and you don’t want to miss and make them angry… Unfortunately we saw a lot of them that had been hit by cars along the side of the road, especially in Hokkaido where they are more abundant. The road is also a good place to see some snakes, as they seek the heat of the asphalt. One day I almost rode over a serpent in the middle of a quiet path. Stopping to look as it hissed back, its markings were distinctive. It was a mamushi, a type of pit viper. Their bite can send you to hospital for a week or even intensive care, so we left it in peace and rode on!
But these are not the only animals to inhabit the Japanese islands. Camping and cycling in the countryside we were constantly exposed to a very lively company mostly made up of spiders, beetles and the incredibly noisy cicadas. They are often a decent size bigger than what we are used to seeing in Europe and there are a lot of them! The spider webs are extremely impressive: complex and intricate, we would stop to admire these works of arachnid architecture. Many of them belong to the “golden silk orb-weaver (Nephila)” genus. They were the most beautiful we had ever seen and the sheer number drapped on hedges and fences is quite astounding. With all the big cities and concrete it was uplifting to see so much life, even if we would prefer it to stay out of the tent!
Camping near water meant we often had night visitors, mostly crabs and frogs, which would scuttle or skip away as we moved about in the dark. Moving up in size, there are crows everywhere. A murder would often swoop over us and into the fields, or even more likely, wake us in the morning with their incessant cawing. There are also plenty of birds of prey, sitting on telephone poles, watching and waiting for movement in the undergrowth. Where there is water, the rice paddies and ever present streams, herons and cranes strut around and hunt for frogs and small fish.
One day, as we cycled through deep green forests, past the bear warning signs, we heard a noise in the bush. We apprehensively tried to see where the sound came from. Was it a bear? A deer looked up at us bewildered. It continued to chew on the grass, slightly dazed at seeing us there, before disappearing again into the deep green.
9 Japanese Jingles
Enter a Zen or Shinitoist temple. It is peaceful and calm. The custom of building in the forest encircled by venerable trees towering above and covered in moss mutes sounds and envelops the senses. They are truly a special place. Much of traditional Japanese imagery is in accordance with the appearance of calm and tranquillity, well thought gestures and no rush. The word zen has indeed become synonymous in the west with these attributes.
Sleeping in our tent we are suddenly awoken by a strident song, mechanic in quality and slightly infantile, a strange version of a western folk song. It’s 6 am and we are on the edge of a small village, or somewhere in the mountains. Loud-speakers hidden along the side of the road will cough into life and give us a simple sounding melody to tell us it’s time to get up. We are also treated to the pleasure in the evenings, around 7 pm, together with some random announcements and more music during the day. As we suspected, this is indeed part of the local government disaster administration wireless broadcast or shichōson bōsai gyōsei musen hōsō. The daily test is used to make sure all is working well and can be used to warn and communicate with the population in times of crisis. They are installed pretty much everywhere.
But the sounds don’t stop here. Japan is (outside its temples) a rather noisy place. In the countryside it’s the cicadas that will keep up their constant and amazingly loud buzzing and high pitched sounds. Closer to civilisation, other than the early warning system, step into a supermarket or convenience store to be deafened by the never stopping beeps, jingles and repetitive announcements. Never try to understand what they say! Once we had caught on to the words, we hummed them for about two weeks!
A trip to the beach should be a relaxing place to get away from it all. Sitting on the sand, watching the ships sail out of the bay in Tsuruga, we rested after our early arrival by ferry. The water was warm. We watched the surprisingly few people make their way to the water’s edge, covered from head to toe, protected against the sun. The silence was suddenly shattered by a voice blearing out from the line of hidden speakers. After preliminary testing, the radio was hooked up and the beating rhythm of J-Pop rolled out across the beach. It was just after 7 am. We endured for another half an hour before we packed up. We would go and visit a temple.
10 Camping with style
Light and fast. It’s a style of alpinism, developed as a reaction to traditional siege tactics used in the Himalayas to reach the high peaks and closer to traditional mountaineering from the Alps. To carry little and advance fast. Considering we are bike touring for some time I would not consider we are equipped very lightly and are certainly not very fast. But when it comes to camping, compared to our Japanese neighbours we were quick and badly equipped. Setting up our small tent we would feel somewhat inadequate compared to those around us, equipped with tarps, tents, yurts, chairs and tables, fridges and of course, the most important: barbecues and grills. That’s not considering electric fans, air conditioning and if you’re a pro, beer on tap. The concept of camping seems to differ from ours which is functional and aims to be as natural as possible; it is a way of enjoying ones-self with all the comforts of home with more space!
Having seen these amply equipped campers in multiple spots we had the pleasure of being entertained by a couple of friends in Shikoku. Kouji and Yukio met us with a smile and immediately gave us a cool beer. Having just cycled up the valley from Tukushima on a humid day it was the best welcome ever! After a quick dip in the Yoshino River and a nap, we were invited to supper by them. Grilled asparagus wrapped in meat, noodle salad and dried fish, washed down with lots of beer and some sake. Their camp was perfectly equipped, as comfortable as could be possible without actually being in-doors!
These are just some of the things that make Japan such a special place. We could talk about hundreds of others! What was your favourite? And if you’ve been to Japan, what surprised you the most?