Adventures in Japan

I left you having picked up my bike in Osaka: the customs agents wishing me luck as I drove away in my tiny 1500cc van. Next stop was the lovely Guesthouse Odori, a quiet traditional guesthouse/hostel on the outskirts of Osaka. Selected entirely because it had a rare spacious front garden – and a driveway.

Driving home and reversing into the designated space went well, despite my visions of taking out small-but-expensive letterboxes/manicured trees/children with my truck along the way. I was then presented with the problem of a) reattaching my front wheel, which had been removed to fit the bike in the crate, and b) getting my 249kg motorcycle off the back of the truck. Easy enough, I just needed to find a couple of people to help.

A quick and ruthless whip-around in the hostel produced Tomo, the ever-helpful hostel staff-on-duty, and a professional biwa player travelling to Osaka for a performance. Both looked slightly apprehensive, and of the two only Tomo spoke English. This won’t take long at all, I reassured them.

Turns out, lifting even the front of the bike up enough to get the front wheel on is quite difficult. After a couple of tries with various combinations of Tomas/lady musician/me lifting we succeeded in shifting the front forks forward by about 30cm but the front wheel remained firmly detached. We paused for a minute to assess the situation.

The biwa player then applied some sensible lateral thinking to the problem and asked (in Japanese, with gestures) why we couldn’t just hang the front forks over the edge of the truck and put the wheel on that way. This seemed eminently sensible. The front wheel was attached.

Stage two was getting the bike off the trailer. I constructed a classy ramp (which I was rather proud of) out of metal crate-bits, gaffa tape and a pair of vice grips to ensure structural integrity. Proud of my engineering ingenuity, we wheeled the bike onto the ramp.

The first sign that something was wrong was when the center of the ramp bent sideways, possibly due to my inaccurate guiding of the wheel down the ramp as I paid attention to everyone else’s job and not my own. The wheel jammed in the gap, so we boosted it out and continued handling the bike down to the ground. Unfortunately, behind the truck was a garden shed, and I had failed to measure how long the space behind the truck needed to be in order to wheel the bike off.

Vice grips and gaffa tape: solving problems

I was saved from an inglorious end to the holiday, crushed between my own partially-assembled motorbike and a garden shed, by the neighbours across the road from the hostel who had been watching our antics with amusement. On seeing what we were about to attempt one of them ran downstairs, across the road, and arrived just in time to lift the bike the final metre to the ground. Thankyous all round, and we had a break for tea and cake.

The next couple of days were spent reassembling, testing and packing the bike. Saturday saw me doing a daytrip to the beautiful Koya-san mountain village, which I had previously visited by train, watching the sport bikes shooting past on the windy mountain roads with envy. The ride out there was just as good as it looked, and the trip home turned into a wonderful detour down windy minor roads through tiny, picturesque Japanese villages, with bright orange Koi swimming in the mountain lakes.

Spot the fish

Spot the fish

Sunday was the day I had to say goodbye to my new friends at the guesthouse, pack all my things on to the bike and head to a campsite just north of Osaka. As I was struggling to fit my gear on the bike, a group of very well-dressed young men rocked up with a photographer, who explained they were here for a photo shoot. Further questions to the hostel manager revealed them to – bizarrely – be a group competing in Japanese Idol, who had apparently rented the guesthouse for the afternoon as it looked “traditional”. I watched as they stylishly held watermelons and stood stylishly in tiny stylish bathing pools, careful not to get their hair wet. They watched me strap things to my bike in bemusement.

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Exclusive behind-the-scenes-footage

Eventually I had everything attached to the bike – I won’t use the word “packed” – and got ready to leave. I knocked back one last CalPis and some caffeine; the hostel staff and the cast of Japan Idol waved goodbye as I headed down the street.

After a few hours of uneventful riding and only occasionally getting lost I found myself heading down the driveway to my campsite, a deluxe Japanese-style affair with showers, a shop, and other classy conveniences. I had two beers in my pocket courtesy of the local convenience store, I was looking forward to relaxing, and it was getting dark. Wouldn’t it be funny if the campsite was closed, I thought.

The campsite was closed. In June. There was a big iron gate across the entrance. There was a moat (ok, a picturesque stream).

After staring at it all in disbelief for a few minutes I figured the grass next to the gate made a just-as-excellent spot to stop, and hey, it wasn’t like anyone was likely to come along. I untied the highly secure rope designed to deter pesky foreigners from the grass and moved in.

The campsite manager rocked up just as I had opened a beer and was unpacking most of my stuff. You can’t stay here, she gestured in Japanese. I understood perfectly from the repeated negative gestures but tried my clueless-but-charming-foreigner act, which strangely wasn’t working as well as it usually does. After some negotiation – mostly involving me laughing and saying “thankyou” in Japanese whenever she told me to leave – she agreed to let me stay in the campsite proper, charged me $10 (rather than the usual $35) and left me to carry all my stuff up the hill.

The next day saw me heading east. Not having an actual map, I was navigating greedily via a bearing on a GPS waypoint, which resulted in an interesting but sub-optimal route. Stopping at service stations looking for a map of the area didn’t result in anything useful – though my time-to-communicate the concept of “map” though charades was dropping remarkably – so I ended up making a grand total of 50km east by the end of the day, despite travelling about 250. I’m told it’s about the journey rather than the destination, but whoever said that clearly wasn’t trying to travel around Japan in six days.

In any case I made it to the campsite waypoint I’d picked at the hostel a couple of days prior, bopping along to music and happy that I would once again soon be relaxing in the outdoors Japanese-style: wonderful hot showers and beer would be mine. The campsite was closed. Two days running.

I spent a few minutes swearing at Japanese campsites that apparently only open for six weeks of the year before heading back to a tourist information centre slash cafe I’d spotted on the way in. After some enthusiastic communication with the help of a pencil, a map and some reading glasses we agreed that the campsite I was heading for was indeed closed but there was another nearby. A phone call was made, and I was set: a circle-mark on a cheap tourist information map was my destination for the night. The elderly lady running the cafe followed me out to my bike and gave me (what I assume were) detailed directions to the campsite, in Japanese. I smiled and said thankyou.

I arrived at the designated location with no apparent campsite visible. There was a business called “Forest Adventure” which looked promising but closed, along with a cafe which looked closed but had its door flung wide open. I walked in and shouted “sumisen!” (the other Japanese word I know). Sammy – my soon-to-be new best friend – appeared from the office upstairs.

Sammy spoke excellent English and turned out to be a paragliding instructor, having paraglided around the world for 30 years. He pointed out that the campsite nearby was stupidly expensive, and I should stay in his empty paragliding lodge. After a second of disbelief I said yes, yes that would be amazing. We drank beer and talked about travel as the sun set behind the mountains, before he gave me food and beer and wifi and left me to sit on the table outside the lodge and admire the amazing view and my luck.

And that’s been Japan. Two more days until my ferry leaves for Russia!

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