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I finally managed to find someone with a 3-speed bike who is kind (or naive) enough to let me loose on the thing and then didn’t use it for ages.

This was because of a lack of time, or rather excuses. With the Xtracycle I can ‘go shopping’, ‘pick the boys up’, ‘run errands’ or ‘deliver a letter’, but I can’t pretend I’m carrying a weeks shopping in a handlebar basket. Then last night Beautiful Wife mentioned that we have a little more than a week before we fly home, so this morning I decided stuffit, I was going for an early ride.

I followed the river to the sea. And back again. I used back roads because on major roads cyclists are expected to use the pavement which makes life unnecessarily difficult. Back roads are usually narrow and never straight which slows cars down. And they’re more interesting.

I got lost stuck the wrong side of the river a couple of times, but I saw some interesting stuff like cormorants and herons, which considering that the rivers are encased in concrete and lined by boat yards is quite surprising. I was shadowed by a pretty big bird of prey as well, which I couldn’t identify, and flushed a stork. I also disturbed a flock of what looked like brown herons in the undergrowth when I was well out of the town.

In addition to recent discoveries, I also learned that apparently, stop signs are considered advisory, and when three cars meet on a four way junction, the one with the most aggressive driver goes first. Even if there’s a bike in front of them.

I discovered today that even in Japan, no matter how narrow a road is, how obviously it is not designed for through traffic, there’s always some drivers possessed by an urge to use it as a short cut and go barrelling along at inappropriate speeds.
I also discovered that no matter how much traffic is coming the other way and how unsafe it would be to overtake, some drivers will honk their horn to demand cyclists somehow become one with the concrete wall alongside the road and let their vehicle pass.
Isn’t it good to know that whatever our cultural differences, there are some things which unite us?

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.

It’s the weekend, and it’s hot. You know when you stand too close to the fire and after a few seconds you realist it’s unpleasantly hot and move away? That hot. The paint on the house has a blister the size of a dinner plate.
Because of this, and just in case we haven’t been contributing to global warming enough in the last few days, we head off into the hills in search of a local(ish) beauty spot on the river. This being Japan, a beauty spot isn’t complete without an activity park but mercifully this time it was limited to an adventure playaground and a grotty loo, and we were spared the gift shops and Japanese pop music from megaphones.
The car park is, naturally full. So is the access road, and some bright spark has parked in the emergency access lane.
After unloading enough from the car to supply an expedition through the Australian bush, we settle down to a mix of reading, paddling and teaching the boys how to skip stones and how to tell where the river is deep and fast from the surface of the water. We are explaining that the still looking part are the fastest when a swimmer demonstrates it for us, heading downstream, and about twenty minutes later we hear a siren and two fire engines and an ambulance turn up. As there’s a car in the emergency access there’s a bit of a traffic jam, especially when a third fire engine comes along, but fortunately the patient isn’t in serious trouble and the third reverses back up the hill and trundles off home.
A couple of hours later so do we. The car in the emergency access (whose owner can’t have been more than 500m away) is still there.
Evening comes, and the payoff for the heat of the day is an incredible sunset, only slightly marred by the accompaniment of the cat being sick on the stairs.

Well, it has to be done at least once in Japan, doesn’t it?

There is a new sushi restaurant in town, the sort with a conveyor belt carrying the plates and the family were keen that we should experience it sooner rather than later. The only problem was they don’t take table bookings and are very popular, so everyone reorganised their day and we piled into the minivan to be there mid-afternoon.

Rich Japan is where US influence meets Asian culture, and the suburbs are like American suburbia on a slightly smaller scale: you’re less likely to pass a temple or a geisha, than a strip mall with a supermarket called ‘Heidi’. The sushi bar is on the most distant point of all this and we pile out of the car and make our way in some trepidation, half expecting to be sent back out again. As it happens we’re far earlier than most customers and we get two tables to ourselves. The food trundling past on the conveyor belt isn’t that promising a first, but after a couple of minutes beautiful wife has -as ever- patiently translated enough that we can select the likely-to-be-tasty dishes such as smoked tuna with avocado, battered squid, barbecued beef, and chocolate cake) and the interesting looking, but unappetising Japanese Caviar or the less delightful sounding sea hedgehog.

 For some reason Eldest Son takes an empty plate off the conveyor, and looks shocked when we all tell him to put it back on sharpish.
I explain that the bill is calculated by counting the used plates at the end of the meal.
understanding dawns. “You mean we don’t have to pay if we don’t have the plate?”
When we confirm this is so, his eyes light up and he starts putting plates back on to the conveyor again.

Beautiful Wife looks at me. And communicates ‘Just like his dad’ without words.

I don’t know what she means…

[Despite this post publishing today, we’re having adventures elsewhere in Japan at the moment, so I won’t be able to respond to comments until Wednesday. Don’t let this stop you from writing them though…]

The plan was that by yesterday morning I’d have shaken off the jet-lag and thus I could get up reasonably early before the heat began to slow-bake every living thing, and go for a walk before returning refreshed to speak bad Japanese to my extended family. Of course it didn’t work out like that because my metabolism still thinks it’s in Europe and we’re in the crash zone between a couple of tropical storms and an area of high pressure which meant that every cloud passing over dumped its water on us, and then moved out of the way so the next one could join in, but about mid-morning I got bored of waiting so I went out anyway.

It took a while to get my ‘Japan legs’ back: apart from anything else, cars drive on the left, most of the time, and I lived on the mainland of Europe for ten years and learned to drive there as well, so I tend to get confused by this, but also because in Japan street signs are considered advisory, pavements/sidewalks are a part of the road with only a white line to show where pedestrians are supposed to walk, and zebra crossings are a nice decoration for pedestrians to look at while waiting for a gap in the traffic.

On the other hand roads are narrow and traffic is fairly slow so it’s not particularly dangerous as long as you remember to look right, or left… and jump out of the way when you get it wrong, and there’s none of the nasty aggression you get from European drivers, so despite getting mixed up several times no-one hooted at or gesticulated wildly.

Bicycles are required to ride on the pavement/sidewalk, which takes a bit of getting used to having been brought up to think that riding on the pavement is an abomination causing desecration and a mark of the coming apocalypse. Speaking of bicycles, the bike I intended to use here has gone, probably to be with its owner in Tokyo, so I’m now trying to figure out how to get hold of another one.

In other news, the suitcase finally arrived, broken beyond repair and missing a strap that was holding it together but at least containing a change of clothes.

Well, one mid-length flight, one very long flight and two train rides after leaving home yesterday (or maybe the day before: I can’t usually keep track of time where I am, let alone several thousand kilometres away) we’re here.

The plane journey was generally boring*. We changed plane in Helsinki and it was comforting to note that the Finns are as inefficient as the rest of us at times, for example by making sure that of the fifteen-odd immigration desks for ‘non-Europeans’ only three were open when two flights to Japan were just about to leave. This created a line of such exodus-like proportions it took five minutes to walk past it before we realised what it was for. As our plane would leave within the hour we used a combination of my British passport and a smile to get Beautiful Wife through the ‘European’ desk and to the gate.

In Nagoya we left the plane last, after stopping for youngest son to throw up on the floor, and were met by two airport staff with the news that one of our bags was still in Helsinki, but it would be sent on the next flight and sent to our address in Japan. Unfortunately, instead of a delivery this morning we got a phone call saying it wasn’t on todays flight and no-one knew where it was.

Still, at least we didn’t have to carry it all the way from the airport, and who needs more than one change of clothes anyway?

*Which in the context of flying 12km in the air in a tin tube, is a good thing, frankly.

As we’re now packing for Japan I’ve just checked the weather there and I’m wishing I hadn’t. It’s showing 35 degrees ‘cool’ and somewhere in the ouch range when it’s hot, and a bit hotter in towns (we’re in a town) and 100% humidity. It sounds like we’ll be swimming to cross the living room.
So I’m thinking positive and concentrating on the good things:

The food, most of it anyway, and when I get something that looks and tastes… interesting I can always blog about it, so I win both ways.
Cicadas. The things start making a noise at about four in the morning and keep going all day like students on a drinking binge, but I still like them. Of course I don’t have to put up with them all year.
Washing machines that are finished in 20 minutes. Why can’t we have those in Europe?
Being able to line-dry clothes in an hour
My Japanese family, especially my parents-in-law, my two lovely nieces, and brand new two-week-old nephew.
Bright green and yellow geckos
Trains which are always clean and never delayed. Ever.
Swimming in the Pacific ocean. It’s warm. And the beach is volcanic ash.
In Japan I’m ´’average’ clothes size. It makes shopping fun less boring than in Germany. Come to think of it, not always being the shortest person in the room will be nice too.
Sunsets which turn every surface reddish-gold.
Sleeping in tatami rooms.
Exploring tiny back roads on a bike.
Eating at cafés which look grubby enough to have a side helping of salmonella but you get to watch them making your meal. (And it tastes good, and you don’t get salmonella)
Tokyo: because when you’ve been there, everywhere else looks better by comparison.
Warm nights. I still can’t get over this concept.
Colossal thunder storms.
Flat roads to cycle along.
Time to read books. Hopefully. Perhaps.
Coming home to a cool, dry Autumn.

Come to think of it, most of those are free. Except the eating bit. And the shopping, although with my boredom threshold that’s pretty cheap anyway. Hopefully I’ll be able to get online within a few days of arriving. I’m sure the journey alone will be worth a couple of entries.

Before you start assuming we’ve got a five week holiday, I am going to be working.

I’m not sure which is worse:

The bakfiets is currently full of one salvaged bicycle frame plus wheels, two buckets full of nettles destined to become Nettle tea for the Very Smallholding, and assorted tools.

This sort of thing happens so much that neighbours in our suburban street don’t raise an eyebrow when they see it any more*

I completely forgot all about it last night, Then, when I saw it this morning my first thought was that it would make an interesting blog entry.

*I’ll bore you with the story how we ended up here some day, for now I’ll just say that being ‘below average height’ is handy when flat hunting in Germany…

Our hard working camera which accompanied me on most bike rides and provided 99% of the pictures on this blog suddenly expired a few weeks back. I’d hoped that by diligently protecting this camera I’d be able to make it survive a bit longer, but I think I probably have unrealistic expectations for the longevity of electronic equipment.
Our finances are looking a tad shaky after we emptied our bank account into the internet in exchange for flight tickets to Japan and although we could borrow a very nice camera which was donated second hand to our theatre organisation , it seems very cheeky to take that on a bike ride, and frankly I’d be leery of dropping it as it isn’t really ours.
On the other hand, there’s only so much of my prose that a sane person can take without something interesting to look at, so I’ve put a ‘camera fund’ widget in the margin. If you’ve been enjoying this blog and you’d like to help us get an inexpensive ‘entry level’ compact (or preferably get the existing one repaired -there must be some little shop in a back street in Japan) feel free to add to the fund. If you can’t or don’t want to*, no worries, we’ll gather loose change from behind the sofa cushions eventually, -I’ll check all the airline seats just in case- but you may have to put up with unbroken rambling for a bit longer.

*and let’s face it, there are more pressing needs around.

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