明けましておめでとうございます – 27年/2015!

Another new year is upon us – 2015, or heisei (平成) 27 by the local system – so Happy New Year, or Akemashite Omedetougozaimasu as is said. (Or Ake Ome to it’s friends).

After a year off, this year I was back down to the ocean to watch the first sunrise, and whilst there was the usual numbers of people, and upbeat atmosphere to it, it was pretty much clouded over. Ah well, it still felt good and it still qualifies as ‘hatsuhi’, the first sunrise.

This year there was a little more organisation along the coastal road to stop people parking and obstructing traffic, the usual modded cars with insane exhausts, and the bosazoku on their modded motorbikes. All in all, it’s a good thing to go down and witness, and after watching the eastern horizon for a while, you can turn around, and watch the year’s first sunrise on the snow covered sides of Mt. Fuji.

Have a great year!

New Year 2015

Sun Rise

Sunrise on 2015!

Bike Trip to Tanzawa

I was looking for somewhere different to go on the bike for a few hours, and using a tried, trusted and very scientific method, I looked at my map to see where there were very few roads, thinking fewer roads meant a generally quieter area. It didn’t take more than a minute to see the Tanzawa area in central Kanagawa.  With all the research I needed done, I got a fresh flask of tea, the camera, hopped on the bike and off I went.

There’s a rough route here on Google Maps (I hope this works – it’s been a bit hit and miss lately):

There are actually several ways to get to where I needed to go, but I thought I’d get some faster roads in to warm up, and avoid some traffic, so I took the quick Fujisawa bypass down to the coast, did a little on the 134 before cutting north on the 61 up to Isehara. Isehara is a notable place for me since it’s where I lived for two years on my first tour in Japan, teaching English in schools on the JET programme. It seems not much has changed, a few new places, more car parks, but it still seems as nice a small town as it was.

Contrast that with Route 246 which is as comedically evil road out here in Kanagawa as it is in central Tokyo. It’s not a fun road on two wheels, but fortunately on this day, it wasn’t too bad, and most of the drivers were relatively sane.

It was route 70 I really wanted though, and the climb into the mountains aiming for the Yabitsu pass, so just before Hadano I made the right and began the ascent though increasingly relaxed housing, more fields and a great view of the mountains.

I’ll be honest, I somehow managed to take a wrong turn, for which I blame my being easily distracted by small and interesting looking roads. I realised my error when I… ran out of road.  This was to be something of a theme for the day.

No More Road

I soon got back on track, and onto the important job of loving the road and the scenery, it’s just a great little area to go and look it. It also seemed popular with cyclists.

There are a number of things to see along the way, some small shrines, which aren’t really notable, and a few viewing points, which give great vistas of the towns below.

tanzawa-tower1

There’s a small service area at the beginning of the Yabitsu Pass. OK, there are some vending machines and a toilet at the start of the Yabitsu Pass to be honest, but don’t worry about that, it’s fairly secluded, and offers just kilometre after kilometre of beautiful twisty roads, shaded tree cover, mountains, and small rivers running down these small valleys.

On the day I went there were also quite a few hikers which is great, but I noted many walked on the left, and not (per international convention I thought) facing oncoming traffic, which would be their right, so be careful on real hairpins, since not only could there be someone walking on the road, but they may well have their backs to you. I think  this was a bit of an issue for the cyclists a few times.

I love twisties, have I ever mentioned that? I don’t ride a bike for speed, I just like seeing what’s out there, meeting people at stops, and winding, winding roads, and this area is great for that.

There also seem to be a lot of camp sites around the area, so I’ve pencilled them in for next year.

As you come out from the Pass, you start to skirt Lake Miyagase, which looks stunning, and is actually a man made lake supplying water for much of east Kanagawa and Tokyo, so if you look carefully you can see dead trees just below and protruding through the water line.

The colour of the rocks, the water and the treeline just looks so different to many of Japan’s lakes, and is quite a contrast to the very green feel of the place.

tanzawa-lake2

The lake has several smaller rivers feeding it, so I chose a road that followed one which the map suggested ended closest to mount Tanzawa, and headed up. More twisties! There were some small collections of houses, presumably for farmers, and the required white kei vans, coming and going, and more and more, signs were for hikers, pointing out hiking routes and estimated walking times.  The roads started to get narrower, and there were more pieces of rocks and leaves in the middle.

Fishing River
Fishing River

Along the way I came across and angling farm, if that’s what they’re called, so I pulled over to have a look. At a turn in the river,  a makeshift gravel carpark (and BBQ spot I suspect) had been created and several pools with weirs of rock built for fishermen to fish their own spot.

tanzawa-fishing1

It looked like a lot of fun if that’s your thing, and each pond was well stocked. It looked a bit rigged if you know what I mean, but everyone seemed to be enjoying it. Yes, I know nothing about angling.

Further on, I made another wrong turn and hit another dead end, retraced my steps, and got back on route, and saw some beautiful waterfalls,  but it was increasingly obvious that the  road was not well travelled at this time of year – branches on the road, a rock slide, a stream flowing across it, and even a snake at one point. Some bent barriers also suggested a few drivers had been a little over enthusiastic on the corners.

I pushed on, taking care between the rocks, and trying to avoid branches in case they also turned out to be snakes, whilst at the same time trying to enjoy the view as the road was now quite high above the small river below.

Finally though, as all good things must come to an end,  this did in the shape of two large steel barriers across the road,  which didn’t entirely come as a surprise since the 50m of road up to them was basically a rock track.

tanzawa-bike1

That then I decided was the end of the run, and I headed back the way I came, stopping to take some photos of the lake, waving to a few bikers as they passed, and felt a little sad that this place was so close and yet I’d never ventured up here. I am planning to come back as part of a group next time, and perhaps we can try some other roads.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Isehara Camping during Rainy Season

It’s fair to say that I like to get outdoors. Although I’m not a frequent or avid camper, now that the kids are sort of old enough, I think it’s important we all get out and get some outdoors and tent time in.

We first went together in 2012, but for a pile of reasons we missed last year, and so this year we’re trying to make up the trip count. June is  part of Japan’s rainy season, but undaunted I booked a spot at a place I hadn’t camped at before up in the mountains, near a river,called Yamagoya.  It’s only a bit over an hour  from the house, so I thought that if it turned into a complete disaster I’d just have to up sticks and it would be a short drive back.

As the date came up, it was clear it would rain at some point. On the day we drove up it was raining, and when we arrived, I expected the kids to complain, but actually they loved it, and I have to say, they didn’t complain once during the whole weekend.

The site is small, running about 100m along a small river bank. Come the real summer they’re mainly set up with family sized BBQ sites, but right now they just had a few tarps up covering about half of them. They actually only have 3 designated tent pitches. This was the first odd point  – the pitches were away from the river, and broadly flat, but they’d put several layers of stones there, which may have helped run-off and drainage, but made getting the tent pegs in quite a bit harder, and of course the rain makes everything more slippery.  Like the previous camp though, I set up my GoPro on time lapse, and afterwards made a video from it – the kids love watching the tent go up at high speed!

The stones could have been a bigger issue, had I not brought our Thermarests, of which I’ve become a bit of a fan over the last few years, meaning for the kids especially, they could get comfy in their sleeping bags on one of these mattresses, and get some sleep.

Once the tent was up we went in to the adjoining cafe for some lunch. They only have a small menu, very Japanese oriented, which is fine, but not much for the kids. That said, the tofu salad and udon we ordered was excellent, and we could divide it between the three of us. They also do desserts and kakigouri (shaved ice with some fruit cordial), which obviously did go down well with the kids. It wasn’t expensive, given they’re serving a relatively captive audience, but marginally more expensive than a family restaurant.

Tenting in the Rain

As the rain came down gently, it was actually quite picturesque, looking down the river, and off a slight cliff down the valley. The kids were happy with my decision that since they were wet anyway, paddling into the river a little wasn’t going to do any more damage, so we passed quite a bit of time just exploring the riverbank and the site.

One of the best things about camping is cooking outside though, and it’s something my kids like too. For normal meals at home they can sometimes be picky, but when it comes off a BBQ or the camping stoves, there are no arguments. The drizzle had let up a little, so I broke out our two stoves – one is my normal lightweight backpacker stove, the other is a domestic ‘cassette gas’ burner. I found one of the set out tarps which was anchored quite high up, and set up just below and to one side of it – you don’t want to be melting or setting fire to tarps – so we got some rain shelter and played safe. I do like cooking outdoors, and with two stoves, got some spaghetti bolognese going.

One thing I was glad I brought is my Gerber multi-tool – I somehow bent one of the guide lips on my camping stove, and had to gently bend it back into shape with my pliers.

There wasn’t any showers that I noticed, but the toilets were clean enough for a camp site, and part of a concrete building, so the kids weren’t too fussed about it. It’s still odd to me that the same kids who complain about a small mosquito at home, don’t seem bothered by much bigger insects when they’re camping.

Let’s talk about insects. I don’t really have a problem with insects when I’m outdoors, with the possible exception of the midges in Scotland. Insects live outside, it’s what they do. However, twice over the weekend, I must have looked like a tempting and tasty target to Yamaburi, which are Japanese mountain leeches, and I had to remove them both forcefully, but safely (well, safe for me, not so much for them). They’re hardy things I can tell you.

I should probably discuss something about the staff at the site too. They’re very nice and polite, but a little slow, and aren’t entirely intuitive. I noticed this when I booked the site as I booked over a week ahead, confirming everything down to kids ages, arrival and departure times. When my wife called a few days before to check on things (if they rented towels etc.) she got into a weird conversation that the booking was somehow not complete. Finally she got confirmation that actually it was all booked. We still don’t know what the story was there. If it wasn’t complete, why hadn’t they called the mobile number I’d provided. I wonder if they’re the off-peak part timers?

All in all then, a good, simple one night camp. I think we’ll go back later in the year, and take advantage of one of the BBQ spots, as well as the tent pitches, as that would be fun. All that remains is for me to find out how to dissuade the local leeches, or a better way to remove them (if you have any ideas, please add to the comments).

Enoshima on Shonan Press

A few of us who live in this area of Japan (Shonan) are putting together a small blog about the place, and write some bits about locations, shops, foods, festivals and all of that and we’re calling it Shonan Press. I put my first piece up on there regarding Enoshima – it’s a great place to visit, and I’ve included a decent variety of photos from the place. I’m looking forward to getting more content up there! Feedback appreciated.

Fuji from Enoshima
Fuji from Enoshima

That Old Skyline Again

Whenever I get a half day to take a run out on the bike, there’s always the decision to be made about whether I should go somewhere new, take some random turns, get off the beaten track, or go somewhere I know, tried and tested. Not always, if ever, an easy decision.

Earlier this week then, when I got that time, I went conservative and decided to do a run I know I can get through in about 6 hours, even with some vital stops for tea: down the Pacific coastal route 134, then up to the Dammtrax Cafe near Hakone in the mountains, then down the toll based Izu Skyline. Then back pretty much the same way.

I’ve written about this route before simply because I really like it – I even did a video for it over a year ago:

A Quick Run to Izu in the morning from Nanikore on Vimeo.

For me it kicks off with some nice straight and fast roads down towards the beach with great head-on views of Mt. Fuji in the morning mist, then out along route 134.

At 7am, there’s not usually much traffic, but since they’re widening the whole thing right now, there were some road works, but those of us on two wheels can usually get down the sides without too many problems – it’s worth noting that the vast majority of Japanese car drivers are quite happy to stay away from that left hand curb and give riders some space. Unless you’re being really obnoxious anyway.

It’s a mix of toll roads – none of them too expensive – until this point, but I usually take them over the free local routes to get that nice elevation above the beach and ocean. You can ride along, see the early morning fishermen on the piers and the beach, the waves coming up the beach – it’s very relaxing. Along this section there’s a service area often used as a meeting point for bikers, so if you’re looking for a quick drink and a chat with like minded individuals, it’s great. I remember stopping in early one February, the kind of morning where ice was forming on the front of bikes – chilly. Unlike on those spring and summer days when the place is packed, there were just three of us, all out on our own, clutching hot drinks next to the bikes, generally not understanding those who don’t ride year round, and also realising it was likely us that were a bit nuts

That beach section, like most roads here, is in good condition, but as it’s been assembled in concrete sections, you get that rhythmic bounce at each join, like a train on it’s tracks.

There are a few routes into the mountains, but the two I usually choose between are the Toyo Tires Turnpike, and the Hakone Pass. The latter is free, but the Turnpike takes you straight to the cafe, and I think is a more entertaining ride up.

Either way, from here on out, it’s twisties, twisties and more twisties.

The Dammtrax cafe is a part of a general service area – it would like to be the smaller sibling of the famous Ace Cafe near London – and has a lot of photos and memorabilia from that place, but it’s not, it’s a corner of a food hall which also offers ice cream and ramen. That’s not to say it doesn’t have the idea – the staff are great, you can buy random biker items, and on most days, you’ll be sat with a bunch of bikers. The car park is huge though, and in the spring and summer months, owners clubs, manufacturers and other motor vehicle related vendors set stands up to sell their products and often have giveaways. In peak season you could probably spend a couple of hours just looking around at all the cars, bikes and talking to the people.

From here though, it’s a short run down route 20 to the upper entrance to the Skyline, and from there, it’s just over 40Km of fun. There are places to stop along the way, and at the halfway mark there’s a service area which sell the usual Japanese selection of gift foods and vegetables and food.

One odd thing along the route, a few kilometres from the beginning is an abandoned building, claiming to be an Energy and Environment Building, if you’re into abandoned building (‘haikyo‘) then this one might want to go on your list. I didn’t go inside, just walked the perimeter; I like the design, and that there’s a drive in ramp (though not I suspect for vehicles really). I’ve ridden past it so many times, but never stopped. Next time I’m up there I might take a closer look at the ramp.

The Skyline is a great road though, good surface, plenty of slopes, turns and enough straights that you can escape slow cars and buses if you get unlucky enough to be behind one. Don’

There’s also a lot of places to pull over for photos, since the road gets you great views of Fuji on one side, and the ocean coast on the other. If you keep your eyes open (so to speak) you’ll also see the odd farm track leading off the road – I’ve followed a couple of these, and they are a lot of fun. This time I rode up one for a few kilometres, and it was great to see a camp site I didn’t know existed, and a really nice stream and some waterfalls- a good place for a cup of tea from the flask.

The end of the Skyline is always a bit of a let down – there’s nothing there after the toll booth – just a long closed down restaurant place. A weird anticlimax, it’s also not very photogenic, though like the Energy Museum, I should probably look into it’s history.

Tax, Alcohol and Radiation?

It’s a new year, so in a fit of preparation, I decided to go and make sure my tax links were all correct before next month when I sit down, watch Black Books Series 1, Episode 1, then figure out how much money I owe the Japanese government.

My first stop for this is always The National Tax Agency website. The English page may look a little 1998-esque, but importantly:

1) There is an English page;
2) It provides a link to the English language summary guide for filling in your tax forms (2013 .pdf here, if you’re interested).

I might write this up next month when I do the taxes, but I have to say that doing your own taxes isn’t so bad. It’s easier than some other things here for sure, and the people involved are actually usually very helpful.

Back to my original point. I was looking around the page and much of it is quite dry, with very dull sounding links like, “Commissioner’s Directive on the Mutual Agreement Procedures (Administrative Guidelines)“, and “Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States issue internal guidance to improve the Mutual Agreement Procedure and Bilateral Advance Pricing Arrangement processes“. Thrilling stuff.

Then, you find links like, “The results of Sake Awards”. I have no idea where that fits on any governments tax pages, but there is a very decent page outlining the winners out of various sake (rice wine) breweries in their pursuit of excellence.

However, the winner of the “Links I Don’t Expect to Find on a Government Tax Page” award goes to:

The results of radiation examination of alcoholic beverages (Last updated on January. 9)

For the purpose of providing consumers with safe and good quality alcoholic beverages, the NTA conducts radioactive examination for alcoholic beverages including those for exports.

So basically, the tax men and women of Japan have managed to get a gig where they have to spend lots of time with alcohol in order to … er … test for radiation safety. And to ensure good quality! The health and foods ministries must be upset they missed out on that job, especially since they seem to have issued the testing guidelines.

Yes, this post is very tongue in cheek.

明けましておめでとうございます 2014!

Another year indeed, this one here in Japan is Heisei 26 (平成 26年)and Oshogatsu (正月)is winding down a little, as people return home from trips, either for pleasure, or traditionally to family, the rubbish collection starts again, and people get back to work. I’ve likely gone through bits about this before (2013, 2012 for example).

Once again, we’ve spent time with family, got out and about exploring with the kids, and managed to avoid osechi ryouri again for reasons too convoluted to go into here. Also, this year, I didn’t go down to the beach for sunrise as I had the previous two New Years – I thought it was time for a break and spend the new year morning at home making breakfast. Next year I may well be back – I actually quite enjoyed it.

So Happy New Year to everyone, and hope 2014 is a good one for you.