Twistybutt 8 – Coast to Coast 2018

TL;DR: An awesome 500Km run across Japan, having a great time on bikes with friends before food and beer. No bad way to spend a day.

The Tunnel
The Tunnel

“This is not an easy ride! You will be on the road for the best part of daylight and maybe more than 12 hours with little time to just cruise and zone out. It is a true feast of twisties that even gluttons have trouble swallowing.” – Touge Express

The Coast to Coast Twistybutt is an informal event put on each year for bikers in Japan by the Touge Express site. We would be riding from sea level at Odawara in western Kanagawa prefecture by the Pacific Ocean, all the way over the spine of Japan to 2,172m on the highest national road in the country, and then on to Joetsu in Niigata prefecture, on the Japan Sea coast.

This was my second attempt at the 500Km route, having clocked in a 15 hour time last year, rolling in tired and wet to the hotel at 8pm. I loved it, I was hooked.

This year I had a few goals – to ride better, to ride smarter, but overall, to be better prepared.

I’d trimmed my gear down from not-so-much, to downright minimal, so that instead of a waistbag and a camping drybag, I was just using a jacket pocket and one of my bicycle’s panniers, down to puncture kits, tools, fasteners, safety kit and a change of clothes. I’d spent more time really understanding my navigation app (OSMAnd+), and understood how gpx GPS tracks worked on it, and spent a few hours in Kurviger.de making a track from the ‘official’ route.

This year I was riding with an old friend (CS), who has been riding far longer than me, but this was his first go on the C2C. We woke around 3am, got prepped, got that all important cup of tea in, and with gear safely strapped to the bikes, we set off into the dark, under that weird illumination of a full moon.

The few other bikes we saw en route were all fellow twistybutters it seemed, and rolling down the coast road to Odawara we were all waves and enthusiasm.

We met at the base of a toll road as it has a small but convenient car park, which we promptly filled with just over 80 motorcycles, from 110cc SuperCub copies, to elegant and classic Kawasaki’s, to big BMW 1200GSs and pretty much everything in between.

It’s a totally international field of riders as well as the machines, and everyone took photos, exchanged last minute tips, realised flaws in their plans and eagerly awaited the off. After a reminder from the Touge Express team about road etiquette and safety,  at around 5.15am we set off with a mere 500Km of twisties ahead.

Into the forest
Into the forest

I again found the first 50Km awkward as I was navigating for the two of us, and generally I don’t ride following a route, so I had to remember to check my turns and not disappear along a beautiful road, but which wasn’t the specific beautiful road I should be on.

(It also became apparent from the profanity levels at stops, that my riding partner’s Google Map / Smartphone system was not working for him at all, so it was looking like I’d be leading the whole way!)

Bounding along on my Tracer with CS’s Triumph Tiger 1200 Explorer’s familiar lights in my mirror felt good in the brisk morning sun, as we twisted towards Fuji, and I had to keep to a point I’d made: I wasn’t going to stop for photos every few kilometres early on like I had the previous year. It’s a difficult promise to keep as many of the views we’d pass by are stunning, and at one point we skirted Fuji, with low cloud barreling down a valley towards it looking like a wave lapping up on a beach. OK, maybe I should’ve have gotten that picture.

(I should also say we were riding with another chap, EP, but for reasons unknown he took another route, but thankfully he made it to Joetsu! )

Fuji from the mist
Fuji from the mist

The roads on the south end of the route were decent as some are well travelled tourist roads, so we made good time as at this early hour there were just a few cars around, mainly photographers looking for that early morning Fuji shot.

After the initial barrage of turns, as we neared Kofu, we traversed a kind of valley bottom between mountain ranges, and you’re reminded that there exist flat, and even straight roads, which suddenly feel wrong. It wasn’t many kilometers though before we were back climbing up into new mountains and more touge, meandering through small villages.

We really only stopped for fuel or for a quick snack, drinks and to stretch our legs around every 100Km. At the 200Km stop for refreshments (and for CS to get caught with his trousers down again, adjusting his knee protectors), we encountered probably Japan’s most minimally stocked convenience store. It was like some homage to late eighties eastern bloc shops I remembered seeing – empty shelves, and half of what products they had were local wines and other alcohol. The staff though were two very friendly old ladies who chatted with us, and made a point of bringing out their personal rubbish bin when I was trying to find somewhere to throw some rubbish.

Corner Torii
Corner Torii

This kind of interaction seems normal when motorcycling here in Japan, everyone in the mountains just has time for people, and if you’re on the road, then that’s a talking point. When we took on fuel around 300Km, we had a good chat with the old gents running the place about why we were on the road, where in Japan we had set off from, how long it had taken, and where we were going. In fact we were quite appreciative as we’d passed a few petrol stations which were either closed for good, or closed for the Golden Week holiday which had just started. (Oddly, I really start looking for fuel when I’m down to half, even though half would still likely get me ~ 150Km.)

We bumped into a fellow Twistybutt’r just a few kilometers later when we were looking for some more refreshments at a large Seven Eleven, and he was relaxing with a cigarette, his CBR600 parked up, and with that riding position for a few hundred kilometres, I can see why you’d be stretching out. We exchanged tales of the ride thus far, and other riders we’d seen.

One thing we’d both seen was another biker on a big BMW coming the other way with his pannier wide open at the back. I remembered as I was waving at him and pointing at the back of my bike and him. I don’t think I got my point across.

Detour
Detour

One reason for that is the ‘biker wave’ – we wave at each other as a salutation as we pass, to say hello, or to pass on information, but sadly I don’t know what the correct gesture is for ‘your side box is open and I think everything has fallen out’. I think he just interpreted my motions as sheer enthusiasm.

It has to be said though, as the day went on, the road quality started to get patchy. Or indeed non existent. We had a stretch of about 100m of basically gravel and stone downhill where they were looking to put asphalt down at some point. Going down this wouldn’t have been much of an issue for either of us, except that there were a couple of cars coming up who apparently had to be in the centre of the track, and would not negotiate, so we were left to get through the rough side sections. It’s all good practice.

I should say at this point that there isn’t much traffic on most of this route, and the vast, vast majority of cars on twisties will move to the side and wave you past. These were the exceptions to that.

We went over some quite badly maintained roads, down through some valleys where there was plenty of debris on the road, as well as the required tar snakes, ripples of asphalt and general subsidence leading to significant drops from mountainsides.

It’s part of the deal – we have great mountains and thus touge and twisties because of Japan’s location on the rim of fire, and the typhoons and long deep winters take their toll. Indeed this year there was a change of route due to one road being closed for nearby volcanic activity. That’s the trade-off – not all of these places can be maintained beyond adequate levels, and I’m fine with that.

We pushed on, savouring the views. At one point I got myself caught in a ragged trench running down the centre of the road when I was looking to overtake a farm vehicle, and had to wrestle the front wheel out of the rut and get back into a lane before anything came the other way, I managed it, but it made me a lot more wary of passing in that area.

Snow Walls
Snow Walls

Almost the only photo stop we made was at the snow walls on route 292, not far from the highest national road in Japan sign, and a truly beautiful view to see, and something of a tourist attraction, and after several hours of there not being much humanity, it’s a friendly reminder. I have to say this is my favourite section I think, riding between banks of snow, awesome vistas, small streams of melt rolling across the road, and the dedicated skiers getting the last runs of the year in before strapping things back to their cars and heading down, whilst the hotels reconfigure themselves for cycling and hiking season.

Winding down into the next valley, and cutting through a small town it was getting into later afternoon, and we were about to start on the last full set of twisties, which are mainly unmarked single lane farmers roads, and which the previous year I’d done in the dark, in the rain and hadn’t really enjoyed it. This time I was a few of hours earlier, it was dry, so I got to enjoy a wonderful ride down into Joetsu during the golden hours towards sunset, with the light bouncing off the fields and ponds.

We also passed a lady on a mobility scooter coming the other way.  Uphill. In the middle of nowhere. The biker spirit never leaves some people it seems.

Down the last
Down the last

The last section is a quick highway burn into the town itself, and we rolled into the Hotel car park literally twelve hours after we’d left Odawara, with the sun just about to set.

All that was left to do was a soak in the onsen and have a few beers with the other riders, make sure everyone was safe, exchange stories and bike scars and share a few laughs before getting some sleep, to be fresh again for the next day, where some would continue to other parts of Japan, but where I would be making my way back home.

All in All

It was another fantastic Twistybutt, good times with good people. It’s a great opportunity to challenge and improve your riding skills, or recognise where you need to put some work in. It’s also a good time to learn your bike, how to pack it, how to navigate on it, and if you’re riding with other riders, how to effectively communicate, or agree beforehand how you’ll proceed.

Navigation

The main thing I learned from last year’s coast to coast, which not only saves time, but boosts enjoyment on the day: knowing the route is everything.

This could be by running it beforehand, or just having a solid mental picture of the turns from studying a map of Touge Express’s route. It also includes having a method of navigation which you know and understand. For me this also included having a far better idea of how GPS tracks, routes and maps work.

Last year I had the source route (the golden master) on Google Maps, and I exported it from Furkot as a GPX route and imported it, seemingly successfully, into OSMAnd+. It didn’t work so well. OpenStreetMap and Google Maps are subtly different, and when I missed a turn my smartphone would then try to recalculate to the next waypoint, which may or may not be on the golden master route. I also didn’t fully understand some of OSMAnd+s options, further adding to route recalculation. It all added up to wasted time and missed turns.

This year I used Kurviger (which also uses OSM) to make a 1:1 track copy of the golden master, which then looked 100% correct on my phone, and I set OSMAnd+ to just use that, so if I missed a turn, it wouldn’t recalculate, it would just point to where I left the track. that was pretty much exactly what I wanted, and was the key to making the navigation portion a case of checking turns in advance, and actually in 500Km I only missed one turn as it was a fairly small hook turn in a forest, forcing us to do a U turn a hundred metres later.

Coast to Coast Twistybutt?

Coast to Coast Twistybutt
Coast to Coast Twistybutt

At the tail-end of Golden Week this year (May 5th to be exact) I took part in Touge Express’ 2017 Coast to Coast Twistybutt, an invitational run across Japan from the Pacific Ocean to Japan Sea purely via the mountain pass roads or ‘touge’ as they’re known. 500Km of turns with the occasional short local road connecting them.

If you were on a straight road, you were probably on the wrong road.

So where is the tale of this crossing? I did write one, but it’s not here, it’s on a real motorcycle website, so thanks to Chris and everyone at RideApart for bringing tales from the touge to the broader world – they’ll be all the better for it!

The Twistybutt – Japan’s Iron Butt Challenge

ride apart

Bike Tour: Lakes, Tea and Senbei

It’d been quite a few weeks since I’d been out on the motorbike for a day trip, so when my old friend ‘CS’ offered up the middle day of a 3 day weekend for a trip out in November, I was up for it, and so spent some time staring at my Touring Mapple book and Google Maps to see where we could put in a few hundred kilometres.

As I’m all about style and culture, I had decided we should meet up on the infamous 246 road before moving up into the mountains of central and western Kanagawa Prefecture. The meeting place: The Eastern Gods Truck Station.  Well technically it’s the Toushin Truck Station, but the literal translation of the kanji sounds a lot better in my opinion. Yes, it’s a truck stop – a fair sized one too – with a restaurant, showers, some rooms, and of course ample parking for large trucks, and a smaller area for vans. We parked up in the latter car and van park, CS’s Triumph Tiger 1200 dwarfing some of the vans, whilst everything dwarfed my CB400.

tonkotsuramen onigiri
tonkotsuramen onigiri

A cup of tea and a catch-up later we were on the 246 for a little while before heading north on the 412 and then moving onto the 413 and pushing west. The 413 is a decent road – well surfaced, the odd narrow portion, with plenty of twisties to play on. For the most part you’re going along valleys, but at elevation, so expect some dampness and mist, especially on an overcast day like we were on. It was at this point I discovered the mist loved settling on my visor and stubbornly refused to roll off, so I need to sort that out.

About half way along, we came across a rest area near the town of Doshi, and sailing past all those people in cars who like to queue for parking spaces, we parked up in the bike area which was packed with bikes and bikers – men, women and children of all ages, with all manner of bikes, trikes and quads. It was a good place to take a break, with people queuing for various hot snacks or grilled chicken, pork, vegetables , some tasty looking grilled fish, as well as a shop selling powdered radish roots, fresh veg and other things there was no way I could fit on my bike. In the end I had a bottle of hot lemon juice from the the vending machine. A missed opportunity in retrospect – I should have queued for the grilled fish.

Grilled Fish!
Grilled Fish!

Back on the road, more twisties, but then a slower section in traffic around lake Yamanaka.  I always like the lakes around Mt. Fuji, especially for the novelty ferries. I didn’t take a picture, but Yamanaka had the giant swan ferry on the water as we rode past.

Another missed food opportunity here: we went past several nice local places and pulled away from the commercialized lake area,and only when we were stopping for some fuel did we decide we were hungry, by which point our only real option was the nearby Royal Host.  It’s perfectly acceptable as a place to eat, but as a franchise, we’d usually avoid it.

As CS has a GPS system, he oddly likes to make use of it, and due to this, it likes to run him a merry jaunt on occasion. This time, instead of taking us to a small tea house on a mountain road I had spied on Google Maps, it decided we really wanted to sit in more traffic around the outskirts of the larger Kawaguchi lake  in a market stalls area where it continued to confidently claim the tea shop was always 3 minutes away,.

After fifteen minutes, we called it out, told it we weren’t happy, did U-turns and followed my direction following my paper map. That was better. Or at least it was better for a while, since on the 137, we were to look for road 708, a svelte mountain road where this legendary tea shop would be waiting for us. Unfortunately CS was a couple of cars in front of me, and he missed the turn. This left me bombing up the road thinking I was way behind,  arriving at the beautiful tea-shop and realising it was just me. Long story short, CS did finally locate the place, and it was worth it.

Tenkachaya
Tenkachaya

It’s called Tenkachaya (天下茶屋), as in, ‘whole world under heaven’ tea shop.  They also make and sell senbei rice crackers. There’s no parking as such, and the collection of cars and bikes basically hug the sides of the road.  Inside it’s all wood, modestly lit, and very relaxing. The staff were really friendly, and explained what was available in the shop and on the menu. That’s when we noticed we’d misunderstood something. They do sell tea –  indeed they give you a complimentary cup when you sit down – but their speciality is a blend coffee. I had to have one, and yes, it was very good. Also, the senbei were sweet, sort of lemon flavoured, and the staff advised us to break them in their plastic wrappers before eating because they could probably stop a bullet. They do taste rather good though, so we bought some as omiyage to take away too. It’s by itself really on that 708 road, which the tunnel making it far quicker to get to and from the lake, but it is worth the ride/drive up for a rest stop and to take in the view.

The Tea House
The Tea House

After that good rest we started winding our way towards the Chuo expressway, joining at it’s southern starting point, and following it east. There was plenty of traffic – perhaps people returning Sunday night to avoid the read traffic insanity of the Monday return, so we ended up filtering for a couple of kilometres before stopping before the Hachioji junction where we parted ways. My route would take me onto the newer Ken-O extension south. I like the road as it’s not so busy, there’s plenty of distance between junctions, and even though there aren’t yet service areas, it’s a relaxing ride though I should note, there’s no street lights along some sections, so with just me on my bike, even with the headlight on, it felt oddly isolated.

The only notable thing on that final stretch was that all the auto-payment arches (ETC) were broken on my exit ramp, so I had to stop and get off my bike, get my bike seat off to give the chap on the gate my ETC card so he could manually check it through, then put it all back together. I’ve never had to do that before. Odd really.

All in all a good day out.

(An aside here: the lake is called Kawaguchiko. That ‘ko’ denotes lake [], and though most signs in English say Lake Kawaguchiko, it’s technically Lake Kawaguchi I think).

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Bike Tour: Shouganai Dam

Imagine if there was a place called ‘such is life’ . Well, potentially in Japan, there is, and it’s a huge dam.

I say potentially, as it’s a bit of a kanji joke – the name – Ogouchi – is written in kanji as 小河内, which with a liberal interpretation, could phonetically be read as ‘shouganai’, which is the Japanese equivalent of ‘such is life’. Yes, puns in Japanese can be many layered.

Anyway, getting past all that, when I found the Shouganai Dam on the map, I knew I had to go and take a look – partly for the name, partly because dams are usually impressive, but mainly because the twisty roads through the mountains to it were just so enticing to a biker such as myself.

Route Planning
I planned my route similar to my previous Tanzawa / Yabitsu Touge route, because it’s accessible but fun, coming in from the south on route 246, keeping on the back roads and those mountain routes pretty much all the way up, but then planned to come out to the east through the rural roads, and then get on the Ken O expressway to come back [map at the end of the post].

On the Road
I was out of my house by seven am sharp, and the weather was fantastic – dry, sunshine, mid 20s degC., not too humid, and made my way up to the Route 246 in fairly light traffic. Some people may have seen Route 246 as a course on Gran Tourismo. In real life, on a bad day, it’s far worse, especially in mid Kanagawa, where is it one of the main free roads west. Fortunately for me, Saturday morning wasn’t too busy and I could make good time, and not have to stop at every single traffic light, every 100metres, which is sometimes the case.

A few Km down and it was time for the interesting right turn onto Route 70. Interesting for a couple of reasons, mainly the convenience store after the right, which I usually stop off at for a breakfast snack, and partly for the petrol station on the opposite corner – a great place to fuel up, but between the crossroads and the various entrances/exits for these two businesses,  you have to be a little careful on two wheels.

curry onigiri
curry onigiri

Whenever I have to use franchised outlets for things, I prefer to at least try something new, and this time, at that 7-11 on the corner, they had a new onigiri (rice ball) – dry curry – which they even heated up for me. It was nice. It was very nice. I would recommend it. You can also chat to the many cyclists and bikers who often use the place as a meet up spot, as it effectively marks the beginning for people starting a run on the Yabitsu pass.

Route70 is a pleasure to ride – starting off with gentle curves, a steady incline, not many traffic lights, and lightly used roads. As you get up to the pass roper (as delineated by a larger bus stop, a gate, and a small bridge), the road narrows and widens, the bends are sharper, compensated for by fantastic views off one side – just beware cyclists coming the other way at speed down! I think I did a whole post on the Yabitsu Pass, or Yabitsu Touge as it’s known.

At the end of the pass there are a few ways to go, but this time, as I was heading further north, I took a left I’d not taken before, and since I was getting a little thirsty, I was looking for somewhere to stop. Then, just a few hundred metres from the junction, there was this nice Sunkus with some patio tables outside, so I bought a lettuce sandwich and an ice coffee, and watched all the various two wheeled vehicles come and go for a while, before setting off again, and regretting I hadn’t brought my CamelBak water-bottle on what was turning into a nice hot day.

SunKus Cafe
SunKus Cafe

Off again, from Route 64 to 518, twisting higher up into the next group of mountains,  then a few junctions and up to Route 76, and over into Fujino. I wasn’t planning to, but I actually got off to take a few photos there  – it’s a small almost-town where two rivers meet. It’d be very picturesque if it weren’t for the factory perched up on one mountainside. I’m going to say it’s a concrete factory, but I can’t back that up.

Fujino
Fujino

More uphill turns which were plenty of fun, and just great cornering out of and above Fujino, and keeping an eye out for a petrol station, since I’d hit the half tank point and I like full tanks. I missed one, a nice, small, local one which I kind of regret as there was a small group chatting on the forecourt, and so I ended up a few kilometres later on at a Cosmo – nice people though.  Then I was through Uenohara, which seemed like a tranquil town save for its very congested main road, then up again into the countryside up to the dam. I came in from the south, weaving along the narrow road,  but always with fantastic views, until I came to a small car park on one corner, overlooking the lake.

Above the dam
Above the dam

Actually, that lay-by had a camera club or something there, all with nice looking cameras with large zoom lenses all adorned with camouflage for some reason – I mean, they’re sat next to silver cars in a stopping area, chatting, so they’re not exactly blending in to the wilderness but I’d guess there is some bird watching to be done. One chap was also flying his drone out over the valley – I should have asked him where he uploaded to. I should have asked what birds they were hoping to spot too.

More twisties and we’re down to the level of the rivers and the lake behind the dam, and some nice small bridges. The lake is called Okutama, after the local area, and the small nearby town. I stopped to have a drink at one of a couple of restaurants nearby – both looked a little worn, but the staff were friendly, and the drinks were cold, and on a hot day like it had become, that was enough in itself.

Cafes
Cafes

Then it was on to the dam itself, which is a huge wall of concrete as one might expect. There’s a visitors centre, and a generous carpark too, which is free. On this day, it was pretty much empty, but given the coach spaces and the visitors centre having a lot of child friendly areas, I suspect it gets a lot of school visits.

I decided to take a walk across the top of the dam, despite the heat, and even though it is what it is, it’s still impressive to see a 100m plus drop on one side, and water on the other. I also went up one of the viewing towers, which have some basic models in them and don’t add much beyond some welcome air conditioning.

There’s not much on the other side of the dam – a shrine for the areas drowned, and presumably those who died in its construction, and a hiking route, which I followed for a couple of kilometres, but biker gear is not the best wear to go mountain hiking in this kind of heat! I’d be interested in coming back and doing it though, as it looks like a nice route.

Ogouchi Dam
Ogouchi Dam

It’s a very tranquil place all told, and I spent a couple of hours sitting and walking around it, talking a little with the staff in the towers and visitors centre, so it was a good destination, even though I was more interested in the way of getting up there.

Leaving the dam was simple enough though there are a couple of road signage oddities which clearly sent some people the wrong way, but I headed out from the east, through tunnels which varied in age from bubble era 1980s concrete ones, to ones which dripped water from their ceilings, and which I imagined had been blasted out in the early 1900s. The road out isn’t as twisty to the east and you soon get on roads which are more frequently punctuated by villages, but it’s still a nice run.

I’d taken a little longer than I planned up to the dam and at it, so I was thinking of ending the day with some expressway riding, and make use of the extension to the Ken O to Ebina and Chigasaki. It was a nice fast run, but there aren’t any services on it, so make sure you take a toilet break or have a drink before you get on! As a new road of course – and not busy when I got to it – the asphalt was beautifully smooth, and it was nice to watch houses and rice fields fly past (at the legal speed limit of course).

All in all, another great day out, and I’d go back to Ogouchi to be honest – great runs, friendly people to chat with on the way, and plenty of small places to stop and check out.

Here’s a few more pictures, which include the obligatory bike shot:

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Bike Trip to Manazuru

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been out on my bike for a run, rather than just running errands, and in fact, the last time, I just did old faithful – the Izu Skyline. This time I decided to blend the old and the new, so I took my favourite ocean-side route 134 down towards Odawara, and then go up the Hakone Turnpike. It used to be called the Toyo Tires Turnpike, but now it’s the Mazda Turnpike. At the lower entrance they basically changed one cheap sign for another cheap sign. At the top, they’ve renamed the cafe area to the Mazda Skylounge, though aside from that, it’s business as usual – and there’s nothing wrong with that – a good chance to see people who love to get out on 2,3 or 4 wheels. I await a unicyclist at the SkyLounge for that single wheel addition.

Sat outside the SkyLounge, on one of the benches with a view down onto lake Ashinoko, I was drinking some tea from my flask, and leafing through my Mapple touring map book, trying to find somewhere I could do in a couple of hours, and be back home in the early afternoon. It just wasn’t going to be Izu again I’d decided. As I leafed through I noticed a small spit of land out into Sagami Bay, that just hadn’t registered with me before, I suspect as I’m usually on the coastal road, which lacks an exit near it – the small peninsula called Manazuru.


View Larger Map

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, first I needed to get from (A) The Mazda Skylounge, to (B) Manazuru. Fortunately for me, a nice way to get there is via Yugawara and Route 75, a playful twisty something, meandering down through the mountain valleys, with plenty of tree overhangs, shade, and more corners than you can shake a moderate sized stick at. It must be five years since I last used this road, and it’s a shame because it’s a lot of fun. At Yugawara, at the base of the 75, it’s a short jaunt on that 135 coast road, but you jump off before the toll and express routes, and then in my case, headed for Manazuru station. I was wondering how these roads were going to work, as on the map there seem to me a mass of turn-offs in front of Manazuru station – and there are. However, after years of tourists, they’ve got it organised, with colour coded lanes to take you to different areas. Fundamentally, the 739 road loops the peninsula, but near the cape (as it’s called) a smaller road breaks off, but this is one way, and quite narrow, which is a good thing, as it keeps traffic flowing safely.

manazuru-rockpool2

I stopped a couple of times along the road to watch people sea fish off the rocks, see the literally fresh fish being dried, and listen to the waves. Riding on though, and onto the one way loop through winding lanes, you finally get down to Manatsuru Cape itself, and a nice large tourist area with car parks and bus parking. From the building, you can get a great view of the bay, it’s very scenic, but I hadn’t come all this way to look at the Pacific from the top of the cliffs – I’d come to touch ocean, and see the shrine. Well, not so much a shrine but, well the photo explains it. As far as I can tell, it’s called ‘名勝三ツ石’ or Meishoumitsuishi. Literal translation – ‘A place of beauty with three rocks’.

manazuru-cape2

As you descend by the steps though, there’s a nice looking cafe. I can’t recommend anything from there, as I was a little early for it to open, but it looked very inviting, perched on the sloping rocks with a grand view of the ocean. At the base of the slope are some toilets, then the pebble beach. The large rocks at the end of the spit are often cut off from the coast when the tide is high, but when it’s low, you can walk out towards them on the rock causeway. You have to be careful on the rocks, and there are thousands of beetles and such, but it’s nice to get out around the waves, and if you’re up for it, try to catch some small fish or shellfish.

manazuru-cape3

The rocks themselves, between two two of which are stretched some Shinto based paper streamers on a long rope (called shime 標, or even a rope version shimenawa), look quite striking against the surf, and it’s easy to see how people living near here in times past would want to make an acknowledgement to the gods of the sea.  All it all, it’s quite a fetching place, and somewhere you can sit for a while and just look out over the vast Ocean. You’ll likely want that rest too, before the hike back up the steps.

manazuru-cape4

The building at the top of the cliffs is nice, but it’s nothing special, if you’ve seen one tourist targeting restaurant selling local food and trinkets, you’ve pretty much seen this one, but it’s got a great view, the menus seemed OK (again, it was too early to try), the staff were nice,   it had some nice places to sit outside, and vitally, the toilets were clean.

After I’d drunk some more tea on the lawn over the cliff, I could feel the bike calling me, so off I went again, giving cyclists plenty of space on the bumpy road, but actually not so far, as another building came into view, and in front of it, the Manazuru Fire Station, which is a simple building with large glass windows, showing off the single fire engine. It looked quite nice in it’s own way.

The building just behind it looks like a large converted house, in some old, and non-Japanese style; at first glance it looked almost south east Asian colonial – yes, I’m not much of an architectural scholar. In front of the house, what was once likely a large stately lawn, has been quite tastefully converted into a miniature golf course. Walk past this, through the palm trees, and again there’s a beautiful cliff-top view of the ocean. I think this is all a part of the number of hotel resort facilities in the area, for those who want to come down for several days.

manazuru-golfhouse1

There are lots of things to see on this peninsula actually – I’d quite like to come back for a full day and walk around a lot more to see more of them, and once you’re here, on foot is a good way to do it. Of course, two wheels are the best way to actually get here.

Manazuru My Map
Manazuru My Map

I made a Google Map link, as the image above is a grab – it didn’t want to show for some reason. However you get here though, the compactness of the area makes it worth the trip.

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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).

Out on the Road (Again).

Or in a plane.

For the first time in a few months I’m out of Tokyo on business. It’s a fairly aggressive schedule too, doing the Tokyo, Mumbai, Beijing and back to Tokyo triangle in six days. Lot’s of things to do.

Actually, as I write this I’m sat on an ANA Boeing 737-700 from Tokyo to Mumbai, and I have to say, this is a really nice plane. It’s essentially a small[ish] business jet, with only forty seats – all business class – and the bonus for me is that there’s a power socket at each seat, so I brought that extra battery for nothing, given that it’s a nine and a half hour flight. It means I can sit and watch more of my own films, rather than rely on the selection on the system, which seems to be very limited on the flights I get and read some documents and such I brought along.

Whilst I was up here I took some photos through the window on my little Canon Ixy 20 IS, which made me look like somehow like a first time flyer, but it’s a view out there which always looks amazing to me – all that planet, all that cloud and all that sky; definitely something I can’t see myself ever getting tired of.

Missing the family already though. Only yesterday we were running around the park in Chuo-ku, and in a few hours I’ll be three and a half time zones away.

wing and a prayer

South Korea

We’ve just got back from 3 days in South Korea. I’ve uploaded a few (85!) pictures in the gallery here.

It was the first time in Korea for the both of us, and with only a limited amount of time we decided we wanted to see day-to-day Seoul, some of the tourist bits, and the De-Militarised Zone [DMZ] between North and South Korea. I’m writing a full travelog to post on the Brightblack site later this week, so I’ll just put the highlights here.

Seoul is a great city – not as intense as Tokyo, but with lots to see and do, and with a lot of cool places to eat and drink. We took in some of the historical buildings, as well as trying the local teas which are excellent (I recommend the plum tea). The underground system was very cheap and efficient, and even though the trains were spacious and modern, the ticket machines were a little less friendly. We also checked out the insanely large and modular shopping district, as we had to buy a few items of clothing to meet the dress code to go to the DMZ.

The DMZ trip is only do-able on an organised tour, and I use the word ‘organised’ very loosely. An hour north of Seoul and you’re pretty much at the DMZ border, after a stop for lunch and a look at Freedom Bridge and the very odd fun park there, and it’s off inside the DMZ itself to the Joint Security Area [JSA] on the actual cease-fire line where North and South meet. We didn’t think we would be let into the meeting room itself, where north and south sit down together, but literally at the last minute we were allowed, under guard and only for a few minutes. However, I can say that I’ve stood in North Korea! It’s a very quiet and very weird place. Beautiful and yet quite sinister. We were escorted closely by UN/US/Republic of Korea soldiers at all times and told when and where we could take photos. The dress code was enforced – you can’t go near the JSA in jeans, so those people had to wear ‘loaners’ from the troops there. The guides gave us detailed instructions on where to go, as we were bussed around the 3 linked camps which make up the UN force’s presence in the area. They also detailed the spot where two US soldiers were axed to death by North Koreans in the mid Seventies as they were guarding contractors who were chopping a tree down which was obstructing the view of the observation post from one of the other ones. It’s an odd place – the DMZ fence, 2km away on either side from the true cease fire line, is all barbed wire, minefields and anti-tank blocks, but the ‘Military Demarcation Line’ is just a line of posts, and some rusted signs on the bridges, so it’s easy to see how someone could stray across, and if you did, as was pointed out, you’d be dead. As you can see in the photos the ROK soldiers look tough, they stand in a TaeKwonDo ready stance at all times, facing off against the North Koreans, who whilst we were there was one guy on the steps, rifle slung over shoulder. All in all, ‘enjoyable’, but quite surreal.

As for Korea, it’s an excellent place, and well worth making the trip to if you’re in the region, and check out real gimchi (spiced cabbage) which is great. The people were very friendly and helpful, and if you speak a little Japanese and English you can pretty much get round everything (most tourists are Japanese from what we could tell). Anyway, go and take a look at the pics!

In the UK!

Well, been back in the UK for about a week or so, and it’s been a pretty busy week. We spent a couple of days in London, doing a bit of the tourist thing – went on the London Eye which I have to say was very well organised and run, and does indeed give a great view of London. (For those who have no idea what I’m on about, the London Eye is the world’s largest ferris wheel at 135m).

I’ve been based up here of my home town of Grimsby, enjoying Britain’s best fish and chips and relaxing in some very pleasant sunshine. I even went to have a look at the sandy beach of Cleethorpes – although a jacket to brave the North Sea wind is still required, though the beach is actually very clean now.

We also went down to Nottingham, my old university city, and along with some friends , we ‘killed’ a few hours watching a new British film “Shaun of the Dead” a comedy set during a Zombie attack. It really is hilarious, and if you get chance, go and see it, or rent the DVD.

So, soon back to London and a Sunday flight to Japan…

Bridge Climb

One thing I thought I’d do whilst I was here is the bridge climb – literally you climb up one of the arches on the Sydney Bay Bridge, all the way to the top where the flag-poles are – 138 metres above the sea. It’s not cheap – AU$150-250 depending on time – but I actually thought it was worth it – over 3 hours of time spent, with a good hour and a half or more up on the bridge itself.

You set out from one of the towers, then climb up some stairs to the arches and then walk up some steps on them, cross the span at the top, and then come back to the start point, but on the arch on the other side. The weather was great when I did it, and the view of the bay and the city is spectacular. Although you can’t take cameras up, they will take some pictures which you can buy later on – it’s not a cheap thing, but if like me you’re probably on going to be down here once, it’s a good memory to have.

Oddly, the only bit where I checked for structural safety was right at the beginning when you’re on some planks about 50m above the road and then some grating over the water. Once you’re on the arches, it’s like being on a hill. The guides were pretty good, and you’re kitted out with all the equipment and a safety line, so there’s no reason to fear. On the way back, coming down the stairs between the rail and roadways, I got lucky and experienced a commuter train whizzing past about 5 feet from me…and when you look down through the grating you can see the sea about 60m below. Actually, I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone – most of us didn’t want to come down again.