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I have a habit of photographing barns: built as cheaply as possible budget, using simple materials, all ways for the same purpose, ie, a big box to keep stuff in, and yet so often highly individual, and generally ignored.

As you can tell from the title, I intend to inflict my barn habit on you as well.

[Update: sorry to people who found a blank space instead of a picture: does anyone know how to make ImageShack work with WordPress?]

On the way to Tübingen, Andi waiting for yours truly to stop messing about with the camera and decide which route to follow. (bigger picture)

There were a lot of decisions to make this month, but finally things are coming together. Watch this space.

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Last week we went to Tübingen. The week had been bright and sunny, so of course it was overcast. Foolishly I agreed with my co-rider, Andi, that we should try a direct route that he’d found on the map. I never learn.

Andi and I have a different approach to cycling an that’s all there is to it. I look at a map and find valleys and rivers and work out a nice flat route towards the goal. Andi just puts a ruler across the landscape and there’s his route. He doesn’t worry about contour lines, but then to be fair he doesn’t notice hills, just powers up them. At least he’s kind enough to wait for me. Occasionally.

So off we went over the hills and far away, where we found more hills and possibly lions and tigers and bears but I was too busy trying to keep up to notice. The downhill bits were fun though.

And eventually, after a couple more hills, and a secret cycleway through a fence, we went through another forest and arrived in Tübingen, where for the first time in a week, it was raining. On the other hand we also had a tailwind down the valley, which meant I could at least keep up with Andi.

And while I’m here, a question for German readers: If you wanted to make a set of wooden mudguards, what sort of glue would you use, and what sort of lackierung? And where would you get it?

From our balcony I can see a range of hills (when it’s not raining, and of course today it is, but work with me) which form the European Watershed, which I find pretty exciting, but I did study Geography for several years. Rain falling this side of them will flow north to the Rhine and out to Amsterdam, and anything falling beyond will make an epic journey through Austria, Hungary and Romania and off to the Black Sea.

If todays weather is anything to go by, neither region will be short of water over the next weeks.

I could cycle over the European Watershed from here, I just haven’t got around to it yet. This is partly because I was otherwise engaged doing things like attending permaculture courses, visiting Japan and transporting poo, but also because I’m a lazyoaf and the idea of climbing up the side of said hills is a bit daunting. But next year I’m determined to cross that watershed.

I’ve done some serious plotting with things called ‘maps’*. It seems I can follow a route I’ve done before to the Neckar valley, which has a well signposted long distance route. From there it looks fairly easy to the city of Reutlingen, which looks a bit daunting, but after that there is a traffic free cycleway on an old railway line from Reutlingen through Lichtenstein (Not the tax haven, but it does have a nice castle) and then up the side of a cliff hill to a smallish village called Engstingen, which is on a river leading to the Donau.

According to the mighty Google it’s about 65km. One way. And then I have to get back again, so 130km in total, which is a bit over my current record of 114km when we brought the Bakfiets from the Netherlands to Germany, and on that occasion it was in the sort of country where a bridge counts as a hill, whereas this route goes down into at least three valleys and back up out of them again, a caps the lot with a 200 metre (600 feet and then some) climb at the end. In theory, the return should be a bit easier because it’s down hill most of the way. Right…

Still, now I’ve told you lot about it, I’ll have to do it. I guess that’s not a bad new years resolution, especially as another resolution is to ride a full century (160km) next year** so It’ll be good preparation for that. I’ll put it on the list along with ‘sort out the garden’; ‘refurbish bike N+1′; and ‘write a blog entry each week’…

*A sort of papery thing that people used before GPS.
**Actually I said the same last year, but we’ll ignore that.

Happy Christmas, and many thanks for reading and commenting this year.

That is all.

We’re packaging some of the lighter bulky items to post if we don’t need them at home within a week. Cue conversations like this:

“Can you stick this tape on the box for me?”
“Yes there.”
“Not there, here.”
“Over there:”
“Oh, here?”

Are we the only people who have this happen? Please say no.

Meanwhile the weather outside is getting worse and Nagoya airport has all but closed down*. If typhoon talas doesn’t hurry up and get out of the way, we may have an extra day to package things up.

*Although they’re saying nothing on their website unless you dig through to the departure boards.

When I asked what people may want to hear about from Japan, The ever entertaining Tony of Tales From the Rock suggested:

How about some pics or tales of normal farm animals, they must have some:) Japanese cows, goats, sheep etc

Hmm, tough one that. We’re still trying to find a camera which we can persuade to display the functions in English for one thing. For another, I haven’t found many working livestock farms yet, and those I have found are a long way away and won’t let us visit. There used to be a small butchers locally which slaughtered chickens in the shop window, but that seems to have gone, and goodness knows where they got their supplies from. Most milk cattle aare reared on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. In theory we’re where the cows for the famous Matsusaka beef are reared, massaged and listen to classical music before being turned into slabs of very expensive meat. (the photo in the previous link shows 100g selling for about fifty euro or fourty pounds) but I haven’t seen any of them: probably they’re all stall-fed.

Mind you, they may have just been slaughtered because the feed came from the Fukushima region. Apparently, all the meat on sale locally is from frozen stockpiles.

In Britain where I grew up, firework displays usually happen on the 5th of November. They’re impressively cold, less impressively spectacular and involve burning an effigy of some poor chap who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case the wrong place being a cellar directly under the house of Lords (The UK’s upper house) full of explosives. As the people who were behind the plan were Catholic, the protestant government decreed that in a spirit of religious tolerance, this should be commemorated throughout Britain every November the fifth.

And so we had Guy Fawkes night, AKA bonfire night, immortalised in my childhood memories of damp rockets held up with beer bottles.

Then we came to Japan where they set off fireworks all through the year for any reason or none, with festivals throughout the summer, each one using enough explosives for the Battle of Waterloo. This is great for three small boys, so we head for a local festival. Unfortunately so do most other people within a hundred square miles, and as we arrive we’re confronted with marked and unmarked police cars across the road, lights flashing, with policemen all over the place. What appears to be a murder scene is actually all about directing traffic and when they find out we don’t live in the town, we’re directed to go and park elsewhere to watch the display.

As the explosions we can see are larger than the village itself this isn’t a problem, but Grandma-san is on a mission now and follows a road that gets gradually narrower until it peters out at a factory in a field. After consulting some locals she decides there’s a way through and despite much muttering from Grandpa-san about paintwork we head down an impossibly narrow gravel track with metre high grass on each side and down the middle. Just before we drive into a giant green house, we veer right and the wheels find tarmac once again, and back onto a road. I ask if this is the one which the police had blocked off. Much sniggering from Grandma-san.

Grandma-san tries to ask another policeman for directions in the local dialect, but he’s not convinced and shoos us into a patch of waste ground between several rice paddies and a boat workshop. This isn’t as bad as it sounds: in fact after a week of concrete and tarmac, it’s nice to feel wooden walls and grass again.

After all this we don’t get a lot of time watching fireworks, and what time we do have is frequently taken up by announcements for sponsors of the evening, but on the other hand it was warm, the fireworks we saw were spectacular, and best of all, no-one was burned on the bonfire.

Onsen, communal hot baths, are another part of the Japan Experience and to be honest I wish they weren’t. Possibly this is because I’m British and we don’t do that sort f thing, but also the idea of showering in public brings back memories of school after rugby lessons with thirty adolescent boys and the creepy games teacher making sure you were all undressed.

And while I’m on the subject, was I in the only school where you always came back from sports late enough for the bell for the next lesson to ring as we arrived at the changing rooms? It left you with two problems, firstly that you were going to be at least ten minutes late for Geography, and secondly that half the school would be wandering past the changing rooms just as you came out of the shower. Of course there was no frosted glass on the windows, and nor would the door be closed, and naturally the boys changing rooms were the ones facing the other classrooms.

Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes, an Onsen in the mountains, at the end of a long hot day.

This onsen is unisex: the gentlemen had use of it from four to six, and the ladies from six to eight. So you had to move if you arrived after half past five. Of course it was after half past five.

The showers in these places are often a push rather than turn arrangement, so people don’t leave them on I guess. This is all very well, but you know it’s going to stop when you’ve got soap in your hair. Try to do this quicker: press button, soap hair: water stops. Hands are in use holding soap out of eyes so wave foot about until find button. Stamp on button. Finish shower in 3 minutes, start to dry off. Hear unmistakable sound of old ladies voices getting nearer, grab clothes, haul up trou’.* door opens. Elderly Japanese ladies peer in. Door closes.

Escape, damp but with modesty intact.

Next day, discover gents showers around corner.

*Also known as ‘pants’.

I think Japanese railway stations are designed by plumbers: they consist of tunnels with complex and sometimes contradictory signs pointing down other tunnels to various different sections and occasionally a set of steps to the mythical upper level where trains can be found. To add to the experience they like to make sure you go at least twice the distance you really need to, and put in several ticket barriers just to make sure you have actually paid for your journey.

We’re travelling to Tokyo on the Shinkansen (Lit: new railway), known outside of Japan as the ‘bullet train’, because the first trains had a nose shaped like a bullet. This is a bit misleading as they have new trains now with a nose shaped like a duck. The station is like a military compound, and we’re separated from the lower orders in the normal trains by high barbed wire fences and a lot of track -either to prevent a mass commuter invasion or maybe there are some very determined fare dodgers in Nagoya- and the trains are legendary, not just for their speed but also for stopping in exactly the right place. This is partly because they have to: the stations have very hefty barriers with gaps for train doors, so if they get it wrong no-one would be able to get on. Why Shinkansen passengers are less likely to notice the large drop at the edge of the platform than other train users I have no idea. Mind you, apparently for some people even that’s not enough: at one end of the ‘normal’ station there is a small platform separated from the rest by a sea of track, with a much higher barrier all around it and automatic gates which open when the train comes in. Why this one platform? Is it for some even more dangerous commuters?

Board train. On the back of the seat in front of me a small notice says ‘please do not run for your train’ which seems a little redundant as I’m already on it and being whisked efficiently towards Tokyo.

Travel on a Shinkansen is like being on an plane without wings, engine noise, ‘entertainment’ or intrusive security controls beforehand, but with legroom and decent sized toilets (Ceramic, not plastic, and spotless: are you listening Deutsche Bahn?) and a view if you’re next to the window, although as Nagoya to Tokyo is almost one unbroken sprawl, it’s not always worth it.

Arrive in Tokyo station, also designed by plumbers. We’ve been invited to lunch with an aunt and uncle of Beautiful Wife and we decide this would be easier if we leave on case in a locker. So off we go down escalators, up stairs through tunnels and what I’m pretty sure was a service corridor. No signs so we stop to ask directions. The lockers are down that ramp there. Off we go down that ramp there, take two more turns and just as we’ve travelled far enough to be on the outskirts of Seoul, we reach the coin lockers which are decorated with huge pictures of mount Fuji. Unfortunately they are also all full.

Back through the tunnels, up the ramp, up and down some more escalators, past the platform we just came from and twenty metres further to a local train platform. Get on train. Three minutes later, we get off the train into another underground station, which looks suspiciously like the place where the coin lockers were. Cross road, into a lift and up into a restaurant.

Lunch over, back onto local train, to the main station and on to another Shinkansen heading for Nagano. We get off in the middle of nowhere. It is supposed to be a ‘resort city’ for wealthy commuters to live the suburban dream and race into Tokyo every morning, except that it isn’t working very well and not many of the plots seem to have been sold. We get the solitary taxi on a vast and empty forecourt and head into the hills where Beautiful wife’s Grandma, (AKA Great-grandma-San) awaits.

Evening. We’re in a traditional Tatami room in the mountains, the night sky is unsullied by light pollution, and for the first time since we came to Japan there’s no traffic noise. The mountain air is cool and fresh after the city and there’s not a neon light in view. Underneath our window is a small pond with koi, at one end of which is a small waterfall.

Drift off to sleep trying not to need the loo.

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