My recently-retired dad came to visit me for four weeks this spring and in true Walker-style we ‘planned’ a mammoth cycling adventure. I think our initial conversation went something like this, “Dad, I’ve got a good bike now.” “Great! So shall we go on a ride?” “Yeah! I’ll look up some good places!” Six months later, he turned up at my local station with his bike in a bag and four panniers strapped over his shoulders, ready to ride.
A ‘ride’ turned into travelling with our bikes from Honshu, across six bridges to Shikoku, taking a ferry to Kyushu, riding up Mt. Aso an erupting volcano, then taking another ferry to the subtropical island of Yakushima, and circumnavigating that as well. Neither of us pay much attention to details such as distances, elevation or whether volcanos are erupting. This makes for a surprising trip. I hope you’ll enjoy my account of it.
Here was our preparation:
Buy/borrow bike bags – essential for putting bikes on trains in Japan.
Bike knowledge – mainly Dad’s part.
iPhone navigation and Nihongo skills, booked hostels and trains along the way- my part.
A sense of humour – essential for everyone involved.
Day 1, March 22, Fukui to Osaka
Our first challenge was getting our bikes on a train. We dismantled our bikes (taking the wheels off, and strapping the handlebars to the main frame) for the first time, put them in our bike bags and had four panniers to take with us as well. Bikes go for free on trains, but you have to make sure they are all covered up in a bag. We got told off for having just a handle-bar sticking out of the bag!
At my local station, the Thunderbird Limited Express train pulled in. We had just a minute to get on the train with our two bikes, before the train pulled off again. Once on, we slid the bikes behind the last seats in a carriage, and put our panniers on the overhead rail. Other passengers moved so we could sit together and generally were very helpful. Then we enjoyed the ride to Osaka! We were on our first train with our bikes, hurray!
Getting off was a little more difficult. It was our first experience of carrying our heavy bikes and gear any distance, and our stuff was heavy. Japan’s great though, just when you are feeling the heat, getting in people’s way and not knowing where you’re going, someone dressed as a giant stuffed penguin greets you with a “Konnichiwa” and a wave! There is always something to make you laugh in these situations!
Once out of the gate, I went to the Left Luggage Room, took the heavy panniers so I could drop them off there and left Dad waiting with the bikes. Five minutes later I waddle back past past him saying, “Well, it’s not that way.” Another laughing point.
As my dad says, “You could convince anyone with that smile!” and by the end of the trip I believe is it true. I convinced the men in the left-luggage room in Shin-Osaka station to hold our bikes for us. And by the end of the trip we got through the ticket gates with our bikes fully together, so we could dismantle them on the platform and not have to carry them in the cumbersome bags very far. A smile goes a long way, as does Japanese service.
Free of our bags and our bikes, we made our way to Osaka to watch The March Grand Sumo Tournament. This was the second time and most exciting sumo tournament I’ve watched, because two lesser known players defeated some of the big-name fighters and the crowds went wild for the underdogs. Spectators threw their seat cushions forwards towards the ring and people stood up and cheered the winning players! This made for an exciting afternoon!
I love the energy of Osaka; the neon lights flickering on the canal, people mingling around Dotonbori and the shops open to late. It’s something you appreciate after you live in a town that only has pachinko parlours as entertainment!
Yet, this time I noticed the seedier side of Osaka. In a revealing documentary about host clubs, The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (2006) the film maker interviews the hosts and their female customers and uncovers the reality of these sad spaces. The female customers are usually prostitutes, looking to become flirty friends with a male host. The male hosts have to play along with their role and pretend to like the women. The better the men are at lying to the women, the more they get paid as the women keep returning to the clubs and spending their hard-earned cash on overpriced drinks. Watching from the Starbucks overlooking the Dotonbori, it’s easy to spot the hosts; leather jackets, big belts and straightened, dyed hair are the give-aways.
The commodification of intimacy in Japan is something that is becoming more and more common. It’s not just in ‘soaplands’ or host or hostess clubs, that people are buying sex, intimacy or friendship. A cuddle-café has opened in Tokyo, and ‘rent-a-friend’ agencies are becoming more popular. This side of Japanese society symbolises the breakdown of face-to-face relationships, and something that is sad and shocking at the same time.
That night we had an awful night sleep at the Asahi Capsule Plaza. It was hot, noisy and because the female dorm is in the basement, this makes it even more claustrophobic! Do the ‘capsule experience’ elsewhere. Or have a few drinks before you climb into your box, as then it may not seem so bad! But they did have some funny Engrish signs that Google Translate probably has something to answer for!