JAPAN - THE END OF ASIA
Arriving in a new country always requires a certain acclimatisation period, not because of the climate but because of the subtle differences in daily life. Mostly these are things a regular tourist on a short trip doesn’t even recognize, especially not in Japan where very few venture outside of the classical tourist destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto or one of the ski resorts in the north. By now we are pretty experienced with that but as always, it takes a few days or even weeks to figure out how things work and we have to admit, it was six months ago that we had entered Korea, so maybe we simply got spoiled and thus had it harder to adapt this time. An adaptation that was worth it and resulted in a very enjoyable and rich three-months in Japan. Three months that were actually way to short to explore this magnificent country full of amazing landscapes, cultural highlights and warm-hearted people. But let’s start at the beginning, on Kyushu, where we ended our last blog entry.
As our arrival on tropical Kyushu end of September was still during the hot and humid summer period and we desperately wanted to climb we decided to discover a climbing spot on the northern tip of the island called Hachimenzen. We had some information but Japanese rock climbing is very much in the hand of the Japanese. Meaning that the set of five excellent guidebooks covering all of Japan are only available in Japan and in Japanese. With the kind help of the Japanese Free Climbing Association we found most books in a shop in Fukuoka and after a few days we headed towards the spot. No need to say that it was quite a change compared to Korea where we could at least read Hangul and understand and find village names and places. Japanese writing is a mix of three different alphabets (Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana) - each individually way more complicated than Hangul and thus almost impossible to decipher without major effort. Luckily most road signs also show the names in roman alphabet, not so of course our guidebooks which made the discovery of new climbing spots typically a major undertaking.
Nevertheless we got pretty close to Hachimenzen, the roads were good and traffic non-existent. In general, the Japanese drive really slow and relaxed, the speed limit outside towns is often only 40 km/h which makes driving through the countryside a nice and relaxing experience - at least we never had to worry of blocking the traffic. We took a few turns and the winding road started to climb up a mountain when suddenly the road got really narrow - and believe me, we are used to narrow roads. The road was slightly elevated with concrete walls left and right and the tropical forest was super dense and many branches and trees made it almost impossible to advance, sometimes we even had to cut one or the other branch in order to being able to continue. It was just the first lesson of many on Japanese roads. We finally made it to the top of the mountain, were rewarded with an amazing view, pristine nature and absolute silence - something we experienced almost everywhere in Japan once we left the agglomerations. It took another day of hiking until we finally discovered some of the cliffs - some of the others never revealed their presence to us…
The climate drove us further north (which mostly means east in the beginning) and we drove through western Honshu, followed the beautiful coast of the inland sea, visited Hiroshima and one of the major climbing spots of Japan, Bitchu (Bicchu, 備中). Again it took us a good day to finally find it and some road-building experience and lots of reversing. We chose a mountain road that was winding down a steep cliff and some of the turns were simply too narrow for us to pass - we had to fill up ditches with rocks and sent more than one Japanese driver backwards down the mountain - none of them ever complained and one thing is for sure: we have rarely seen any country where everyone is able to go backwards over long distances on narrow roads without any problems.
You might wonder if there are no length, width or height limitations on Japanese roads and the answer is no - Japanese cars and especially trucks are simply small (except overland trucks that only frequent highways). The delivery truck, the rubbish truck, even the concrete truck are “half-size”, hardly any bigger than a Mercedes Sprinter so there is no need for any of these signs and we learned to become a little more careful in the choice of our roads, or at least we knew what to expect.
Bitchu was still way to humid for serious climbing, one of the last tornados of the season had just passed and we moved to the northern coast to visit the famous dunes of Tottori and the coastline near Amanohashidate (the Bridge to Heaven) - one of the “three great views” of Japan located in northern Kansai. From there we headed south to the “must-see” Kyoto and for the first time in Japan saw countless foreign tourists visiting the dozens of temples and shrines dispersed all over the ancient capital of Japan. It took us a while to find a place for our Rouletout - even parking for a few minutes is a major hassle in Japanese cities. We got lucky on a hill overlooking the city of Kyoto and explored the town and some of the sights using our motorbike and soon came to the conclusion that we want to move on - cities and crowds are really not our thing.
We moved further east and approached Ogawayama, a big climbing spot recommended by Japanese climbing friends located at about 1600m above sea level and thus perfect for the season. The granite walls and towers are considered one of the cradles of Japanese rock climbing. The forests are full of boulders and thanks to the help of many climbers coming in from Tokyo (which is about 2 to 3 hours drive) we found our way to the very dispersed sectors. We parked our truck not far from huge lettuce fields and only later we learned that these farmers are amongst the richest in Japan as lettuce is extremely popular - we even got lettuce ice cream in this lost area and farmers happily supplied us with fresh lettuce whenever we passed their fields.
Another Japanese institution are the speaker systems installed all over Japanese villages, some of them dating back to World War II. Depending on the village, different - mostly cracky - announcements are given at specific times of the day. As we learned in Ogawayama they include a wakeup announcement at 06:00am, one to do the morning exercise shortly thereafter, another one to leave for school or to work in the fields and so on. It took us a while to get used to these announcements, especially in very remote places and during bad weather we were reminded of the TV-series Lost and we were never sure if they announced an evacuation or a tsunami…
The nights were already cold in Ogawayama and we had some issues with our heater so that after a good week of climbing we decided to move lower and south to another major climbing spot, Jogasaki. As we had to pass the Minami alps and it was already mid-October we decided to stop and try to climb Kita Dake, with 3193m the second highest peak of Japan and with an amazing view of Mount Fuji. The lost and steep valleys of the Minami alps were colored by automly trees and we soon learned that we can not drive by ourselves to the start of the hike to Kita Dake - instead we had to take 2 small busses frequenting the steep and narrow roads to reach the suspension bridge at the bottom of Kita Dake.
This national park also had another surprise for us, dogs were not allowed which meant that Berna could only hike to Shiraneoike hut (白根御池小屋) and then had to go back while I continued to Kita-dake kata-no-koya (北岳肩ノ小屋) - the hut at about 3000m. The rather expensive 8000 Yen for the night included a delicious Japanese meal and breakfast and almost all of the few other guests were concerned about my well-being and planning, not to miss the sunset, the sunrise or any of the meals. Getting up at 4 in the morning and hiking the last part to the summit to see the sunrise on Mount Fuji was definitely worth it even though when the hike down was steep and long and I had no bus connection back to Rouletout from Kitazaw-Toge pass for hours. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan if there is no one to help. After a short hike down the mountain pass a small bus with a group of retired people stopped and asked me to come along - the bus driver had seen our Rouletout a few days before and - obviously having studied our web-page or talked to locals - explained our story on the microphone for the amusement of the whole group (at least this is my interpretation of what was going on in the bus), he even made a photo-stop at Rouletout before waving good-bye.
Japanese rarely see cars with foreign plates and in general it makes them very curious. More than once somebody showed up to ask about our plates, a few times they even called the police to find out why and how we are here and if everything is ok. Needless to say that the police typically has no clue either and spends hours on the phone until they find someone who knows how to handle and explain it - few of them speak English which makes that experience a funny but also a quite time consuming one ;-). Luckily our friend Kaz, whom we met at our base near Kita Dake prepared a nicely laminated paper in Japanese explaining our situation and why we have foreign plates - at that time we had no idea how useful it was going to be, thanks again Kaz!
Jogasaki, located at the coast on Izu-hanto was not far. It’s black, only a few thousand year old basalt and breathtaking coastline make it also a very popular touristic spot and so it took us a while until we found a place to stay. From the first one we got chased by the police after two nights - it really seems that people rather call the police before confronting a problem by themselves. It took almost 2 hours to sort out the issue with our foreign plates but then police and a friendly woman passing by escorted us to a nice spot up on the hills above Jogasaki. The woman checked in on us a few times during the next days bringing fresh vegetables and fruits on her way to work.
We enjoyed the climbing and started to discover and love the Japanese Onsen (hot springs) culture. Most of Japan is covered with Onsens but Izu-hanto (Izu peninsula) with its volcanoes is something like the hot-spot of Onsen culture. Again, it took us a while to understand how everything works. There are Onsens with private pools, mixed Onsen but typically they are separated between men and women. Some of them are indoors, many have indoor and outdoor baths and some are located in spectacular locations like the top of a cliff or somewhere in the mountains with amazing views. All you need is a towel and most likely someone to show you the way - English is non-existent in the world of Onsens. And believe me, there is hardly anything more relaxing after a climbing day then jumping in an Onsen. We toured Izu-hanto, visited lost fisher villages and Onsen after Onsen and stopped at another climbing spot, Jo-yama (城山) where we also did our first real multi-pitch climb in Japan.
Hourai (鳳来, Horai) was next on our list. Located in a rural valley north-east of Nagoya it is one of the major climbing spots of Japan and it has also plenty of Onsen ;-). The cliffs are hard to find as the forests are dense and some of the approaches are far but the climbing is great, steep, pockets and technical climbs. On our rest days we explored the wider area, tried to experience and understand the Japanese Pachinko culture (we failed) and once took a longer ride north through Nagano to Wakura (another Onsen hot spot) and around Nato-hanto - a peninsula at the northern coast very famous for its fish (we had the best food in Japan there!) and wild coastline. While driving though the Japanese alps we encountered all sorts of deer and for the first time we saw monkeys stealing oranges and even monkeys in the snow - Mutlu was reminded of India and Thailand.
Contrary to many other Asian countries, Japan has only few restaurants in rural areas and it might be hard to find one at all. On the other hand, Japan is covered with convenience stores, small shops supplying most of the daily needs, some also with fresh food. These stores are run by chains like Lawson, 7Stop, K-Mart, Family Mart and also offer free WiFi (which is very rare in Japan!), toilets - and as everywhere in Japan this means heated seats, shower and drier - and some of them even allow you to fill water.
Back in Horai we met Kyoji who invited us to his home and we spent a very enjoyable evening with the whole family Kamiya. The youngest daughter even decided to sleep with us in Rouletout for the night. Tokyo was next on our list and it was also time to start preparing for the shipment and travel to the USA.
We once again passed near Mount Fuji and arrived on a late morning in downtown Tokyo. We expected it to be hard to find a place for the night - even parking a regular car is hugely expensive and there are no parking lots for trucks of our size. It was even harder than we thought and after a while we gave up and decided to park in an area where parking is only allowed for 90 minutes, counting on our size and foreign plates as insurance that nothing will happen. We explored the city using public transport and got some admin stuff done when we saw an email message by Kenta from Red Bull Japan. He had spotted us in the morning and came to meet us, chat and deliver a box of Red Bull to our spot near Yoyogi-Park.
We had a few days left before we had to leave our home at the port of Yokohama and decided to visit Maku-iwa, another small climbing spot at the coast near Atami. We spent a wonderful evening with Maki & Cieran high above Atami and then it was time to drive to Kamogawa - south of Tokyo on Chiba-hanto at the Pacific coast where Berna had found the beautiful Blueberry hotel for us to spend the last days under perfect blue skies in Japan. I dropped off Rouletout in Yokohama port and a few days later we were bound for Narita - where we had our last Sushi with Sake - and Los Angeles. After 2.5 years it was time to say bye bye to Asia, a new continent was waiting for us. Even though we haven’t seen the north and missed the skiing on Hokkaido, Japan was a wonderful place to finish our journey through Asia - one day we will be back.