Things to wear. The kimono is synonymous with Japanese culture and sophistication, a definition of elegance and the importance of tradition. The main garment is held in place by an obi, a wide sash at the waist, tied into a knot at the back. They can be made of silk or simpler materials such as cotton or hemp and can be plain or patterned. The lighter, more casual version is called a yukata, originally meant for the home; they have become more popular and are now often worn at summer festivals.
These beautiful robes are a far call from tight and functional cycling appareil, making the switch all the more dramatic! Having taken a long and relaxing ferry all the way down from Hakodate, the next leg of our Japanese odyssey had just begun. Entering by the small port town of Tsuruga, we plunged into the cauldron of heritage, tradition and culture that is central Japan. Wondering through the sleepy city, we came across a small kimono shop called Oriya. Sandie’s curiosity soon got the patrons doing their best to explain all the differences in cloth, technique and style. Luckily the owner’s son spoke French and he graciously helped us translate and understand the correct way to dress, including how to tie the knot of the obi oneself. It was a great experience and the perfect way to start our journey in the historical heartland.
After our wild debut in the north, the change could not be more striking. Not only did we exchange the rugged and natural landscapes for metropoles full of the delights of civilisation, we had also gone from incessant downpour to roasting temperatures. We could not complain, it was enjoyable to see the blue sky, but with the thermometer stuck almost at 40ºC, cycling was going to be tough and sweaty.
The best solution was to make the most of the beach before heading inland! We camped next to the sea and after watching the fishermen as the sun rose, we went for an early swim before jumping on the bike.
From Tsuruga we set our sights on lake Biwa, the largest in the country. Not only would it be a pleasant ride, but by keeping close to the water we would be able to cool off if necessary. There is a cycling path along much of the western edge, and we admired the herons and cranes fishing in the rivers that empty into the lake. They were full of fish, which we could see from the many bridges, swimming slowly in the current. This region is perfect for camping, as there are plenty of quiet sections. Unfortunately we woke up one night to find the tent poles had snapped, meaning we would soon need to replace our little home.
Enter Kyoto, the imperial city. For over eleven centuries it was the home of the emperor and his court, if not the seat of power, which was held by military rulers. The most famous of these was the Shogun, starting with Tokugawa and following with his descendants. Since the Meiji restoration, the emperor resides in Tokyo, but Kyoto benefited from his presence for over a millennia. This means the city is home to some of the most impressive cultural sights and has an impressive list of heritage. There are indeed some of the most emblematic temples and shrines of the country.
The city is centred in a depression, with most of the temples on the flanks of the surrounding hills. Notwithstanding the heat, we cycled from one to another. Bikes can be safely left at the entrance of most monuments, but if you plan to do some shopping in downtown you will need to use the designated areas as it is forbidden to leave them on the street. During our short stay we visited some of the better known places, such as the Fushimi shrine or the impressive Rokuon-ji, better known as Kinkaku-ji or Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The pavilion, covered with gold leaf is reflected beautifully in the surrounding lake. Other, hidden gems can also be found, such as the moss covered Gio-ji temple, cloaked in a green mantle of tranquillity. It is not far from the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest, where the dappled light floats down through the vertical canes.
Torii. A torii is a gate, a way of highlighting the difference between inside and out, between ura and omote, and a symbolical way of designating the entrance to a Shinto shrine. It marks the limit between the banal and the sacred. They are never bordered by a fence, but rather define the boundary of reality, altering the space around them.
We had passed beneath our first torii in Tsuruga, at the Kehi Shrine. It is the country’s third largest made out of wood, and is an imposing structure, built in the Ryōbu style and painted deep red. As we cycled beneath it we were entering a new stage of our journey.
The next torii we encountered is harder to cross, rising out of the waters of lake Biwa. The gate at Shirahige-jinja Shrine is a beautiful sight. The lacquered wood and the simplicity of its construction are in perfect harmony with the green water of the lake. As we looked on in awe, a small turtle swam past the pillars before disappearing beneath the waves.
But the place to see the most torii is at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. Inari is the kami of rice and agriculture, but has also been venerated by merchants and tradesmen. It is simbolised by a fox. In Shinto, a polytheistic religion, the spirits of nature or kami are worshipped, with offerings being made to placate them and ask for blessings. At Fushimi, rich businessmen have donated torii to the shrine since the Edo period. This has created the Senbon Torii, known as the 1000 gates. Walking up these orange tunnels is a magical hike, especially early in the morning.
Onto Osaka . Osaka, Japan’s second largest city is the epitome of tradition meeting modernity stereotypes. Having been the commercial hub for centuries it is famous for a down to earth attitude and great food. To reach it from Kyoto we were pleasantly surprised to discover a bike path that follows the Katsura and Yodo rivers. This means that traffic lights are kept to a minimum and the landscape is relatively green. Impressive, considering we were entering a city with over 20 million inhabitants!
After our fist experiences in rural Japan, we finally encountered the neon filled streets we expected, filled with bars, cafes, shops and so many people. The Dōtonbori district is at its most active at night, the large advertising screens banishing the darkness to promote electrical goods and alcoholic beverages. In the morning, people head to Nipponbashi, to search for electronics, manga magazines, memorabilia and video games.
Rising up from the modern city, Osaka castle is a stunning spectacle. Its white paint and golden highlights shine in the sun, majestically dominating the skyline. Unlike European fortresses, its delicate features give the impression of being unprotected. This is misleading, as it is defended by two deep moats and huge steep walls that enclose the keep and surrounding buildings. It was founded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s most famous general and rulers. The successor of Oda Nobunaga, he is known as the second unifier of the country. Not having been born into a samurai lineage he did not claim the title of Shogun but still led the country into many wars, including two invasions of Korea. Osaka’s castle was indeed the last ward of his clan and a difficult hurdle to overcome by his successor, the first Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who entered after filling in the outer moat and defeating the son of his predecessor.
During our visit, the inner walls were the stage of less violent pursuits. Beneath the tiered green roofs, a group of dancers dressed in yukata’s were going over traditional dance moves in front of a crowd of senior citizens. As the music started up, the congregation joined in and soon everyone was swaying to the rhythm. As night fell, little did we know that it hailed the highlights of the days to come.
The Tokaido is the eastern road that links the Edo, the ancient name for the capital Tokyo, with Kyoto. This historic route has been of much importance and is now the most heavily traveled corridor in the country. This does not make it a great candidate for bike touring, although it may not have always been the case. Back in the day, there where resting posts or stations along the way that broke up the long journey. These stops became the subject for one of Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e masterpieces: Fifty-three stations of Hokkaido. Ukiyo-e is a Japanese artform, where wood blocs are carved and used to make coloured prints. Known as “pictures as the floating world” they appeared in the 17th century, the most famous virtuosos being Hiroshige and Hokusai. The laters masterpiece, The Great Wave off Kanagawa has become a cultural icon and reprinted across the world.
By carving multiple, complementary woodblocks and applying the paint with a brush, graded colours can be achieved. The extreme detail higlighting characters and landscape are a product of the intricate work. Having first encountered ukiyo-e prints at an exhibition in France where never before shown pieces where being presented I was astounded by the depth of colour. The features such as the rain, slashing into farmers, and the wind, whisking off their hats are well studied and give added realism.
With these scenes in mind, we caught the ferry at Wakayama and set sail from Honshu. As we arrived in Tokushima, on the island of Shikoku, we exchanged one artform for another, more intangible variety.
Awa Odori. The festival, “the dance of the fools” is an epic event, congesting the streets with and incredible mix of sound, revelers and dancers that sway and prance to the beat of the taiko and the fast paced kane bell.
Rolling into town, the mood was festive. We started by observing the initial parade, where the performers show off their moves to the public. This slow dance is the nagashi. Each group, known as a ren and made up of dancers and musicians have a distinctive livery and style. Kimonos and yukatas come into their own, the flowing robes and splendid designs competing in boldness and colour. It is truly a beautiful sight to behold so many traditional garments.
Odoru ahou ni
Onaji ahou nara
Odorana son, son
The dancers are fools
The watchers are fools
Both are fools alike so
Why not dance?
As night slowly fell, the pace picked up. Bands of dancers started to increase their rythm. The speed of the kane bell became faster. Impromtu circles of spectators closer around groups of dancers, who battled it out between troops. By now the dancing had taken on furios pace. This was the zomeki.
As beer and sake flowed, so did the sweat from our brows, adding to the humid crush of humanity. Fans fluttered frenzidly, trying to push away the heat. As flowing anarchy descended onto the masses, a bright whirlpool of revelers mixed spectators with dancers following the words of the song. In the appartments above, entire families caught the vibe, going from pasive observers to private parties.
We were soon sucked in too, leaving our bikes, prancing the mad dance.
Full circle: from our first kimono’s in Tsuruga to the spendid garments displayed at the Tokushima odori our short traverse of Japan’s cultural heartland had given us a glimpse a region infused with tradition that is still being kept alive and enjoyed. Time to listen to the rythm of history.