I am just back from an 18 day cycling holiday to Japan, and what a blast the holiday turned out to be. The holiday was organised by Saddle Skedaddle, a cycling tour company based in Newcastle, England. (Check out www.skedaddle.co.uk “ they have some fantastic holidays). I was going to post a blog of the trip on the Wheelers’ website, but Japan is surprisingly short of internet cafes and it was impossible to find the time or place to get any notes posted. But what a trip it was! Japan is a place that I’d always wanted to visit and it didn’t disappoint.
First off, we were blessed with the best cycling tour guides I’ve ever met. An Australian by the name of Vincent Flanagan (I wonder where his ancestors came from) and a local man named Maso Tanaka. Vincent is a retired professional cyclist who still works with Trek cycling in Japan. He has lived in Kyoto, Japan for over twenty years, speaks fluent Japanese, and was great at helping us to understand the nuances and subtleties of Japanese culture. The cycling itself was an absolute treat. Some road cycling, some off road and a few singletrack outings kept us busy. There were a couple of serious climbing days too, with one particularly memorable ascent to the rim of the active volcano, Mount Aso.
We tried our hand at Japanese cooking, calligraphy and the inevitable karaoke bar. All of these were great fun, but the things I liked best were the Japanese food and, oddly enough, a chance to travel on the Shinkansen, the famous bullet train. I love Japanese food anyway, and it is so beautifully presented that it almost seems a shame to eat it. It’s not often that I photograph my dinner before I tuck in, but I felt compelled to do just that on several occasions. (The only previous time I photographed my food, it had been prepared by my present wife (The War Office) and I just thought it might be a good idea to have a photo for use at any subsequent inquest). I tried almost everything that was put in front of me, but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat raw horsemeat or a plateful of sea snails. Other than that, I gave it a go and it was fantastic.
Travelling on the bullet train was an experience in itself. (So is travelling by British Rail, but for different reasons). The train pulled into Kyoto at 30 seconds before the scheduled departure time, and took off precisely on the minute of departure. We rocketed towards Tokyo at over 300Kph, but without any sense of speed or drama. I read somewhere that the Shinkansen have operated in Japan since 1964 without a single accident “ an incredible statistic!
I haven’t even mentioned the scenery yet (beautiful and ever changing, especially on the southern volcanic island of Kyushu where we cycled for a week), the temples and Geishas of Kyoto, the politeness and grace of the Japanese people, the cleanliness, the complete absence of litter, the beautifully furnished accommodation, the fact that vandalism and street crime are unknown in Japan, the staggering experience that is a weekend in Tokyo (female Wheelers would kill for a shopping trip to Ginza), and, best of all, the Onsen.
The Onsen are traditional public baths (cleanliness is a national obsession in Japan) where you go to unwind after a busy day. You have a shower before entering, and than relax in naturally heated water from local hot springs. The water usually contains sulphur and other minerals and it was just blissful to climb off the bike after a hard 80km and luxuriate for an hour or so in a hot communal bath. Therapy just doesn’t come any better than that.
Downsides? Well, it takes about twelve hours to get there, and it was expensive. But think of it this way. You could go on this holiday or spend the money on smoking twenty cigarettes a day for a year. I know which I’d rather do.