The Paper Village of Echizen, Japan

•October 20, 2013 • 2 Comments

We visited Echizen for a few days, which is a center for Washi, or hand-made Japanese paper, made mostly from Kozo.  Alison took a workshop, and I spent the day riding around.

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Kyoto, Japan 2013

•October 20, 2013 • Leave a Comment

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Best Laid Plans…

•September 26, 2013 • 3 Comments

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This is not exactly how my cycling journey was intended to end.  About ¼ into the ride, over three weeks ago, I received word of a family medial emergency at home, which required my presence.

So, with no advanced planning, I had to cycle to the next city that had the Shinkansen (high speed train), doing two hilly days of cycling in one day, then I got my bike box shipped up to me, which was waiting for me at my last hotel, and then I booked the first available flight home.

Things at home are fine now, but the cycling trip could not be completed, which is disappointing, but under the circumstances, it was simply not possible.   Whether I finish it at a later date is still a question mark.

Abandoning a goal that I set (especially one with so much planning invested) is not something I do very often, so this has been a particularly poignant experience that I’ve had to accept.   Life is a constant surprise, and making tough adjustments along the way is an important part.

My wife, Alison, had planned on coming to Japan at the end of my trip, and we decided to keep those plans, so we’ve returned for 18 days; though, there won’t be any cycling, unless you count riding upright city bikes with baskets on the front, like the photo of me in Kyoto yesterday.

Cycling Japan: Food and Restaurants

•August 31, 2013 • 2 Comments

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these 5 photos have absolutely nothing to do with food or restaurants

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FOOD:  There are plenty of places in the world that can be considered food destinations, Italy and France being two of my favorite.  But the food in Japan is incredible, not just because it’s so good, but it’s so unusual and varied.  Sure, there are a few things that may challenge the Western Palette, but mostly the food is fantastic.

Obviously it helps if you like fish, usually raw, and often prepared without all the visual sanitization that goes on in our restaurants.  Today’s Raman bowl had scallops, but they still had all the tentacles on them that hold the meat to the shell.

My lunch routine has been to stop at a grocery store (not convenience store, which are numerous and have crappy food), and go to the prepared food section where they have an overwhelming selection of sushi boxes that are so appetizing I would become paralyzed by the options.  It’s cheap, and very good.

However, we do need to discuss Natto.  Natto is cured soybeans, which end up with this slimy, sticky, mucus-like substance holding the beans together.  Most Westerners dislike it for the taste and smell. That part didn’t bother me, maybe because I was so preoccupied being disgusted by the feeling in my mouth.  It is truly awful.

It’s a popular item to have with breakfast, especially in the North.  Most people put it on plain rice.  I tried that thinking possibly if I put something inedible with something I like, maybe I could eat it.  Nope.  It only made it inedible…but with rice.

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FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY:  Alison keeps asking me to take some photos of the food. I’ve resisted because I really don’t like the whole take-a-photo-of-your food thing.  Mainly because the end result is usually anything but appetizing, especially if taken with a phone (the only thing worse than amateur food photos are: cat photos, photos taken in public with an iPad – no taking movies in public with and iPad is far worse).

You know why those food photos in cookbooks and magazines look so great?  It’s because there is a whole crew dedicating dozens of man-hours, and piles of equipment, to get just one shot, and usually, what you’re seeing isn’t even real food anyway.  It just looks good.

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NAPKINS: The only other place I’ve traveled that had this weird napkin thing was Spain; where the napkins are small and about as absorbent as a plastic bag.  One messy tapas meal and you have piles of these slippery paper sheets sitting next to your plate.

Here, it’s not that the napkins are non-absorbent, it’s that in many small out of the way restaurants they are often non-existant.  And when you’re eating a big bowl of Raman that has a chicken leg in it and all you have are chopsticks and a spoon, well, keeping your face clean is a real challenge.  The Raman bars may give you one tiny napkin – maybe – along with the boxes of tissue on the bar.  Tissue?  Have you ever tried to wipe your face with a tissue?  It rolls up into a messy ball, and definitely becomes a single use product.

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CHOPSTICKS:  Eating with chopsticks is no big deal; however, I was given a dexterity challenge when an over-easy egg showed up on my plate the other morning and all I had were chopsticks.  What to do?  Well, I picked up the plate with my left hand and put it close to my face, grabbed the chopsticks with my right hand then folded (kinda) the egg in half and shoveled it into my mouth.  It was not an elegant process, but I got it in without too much of a mess. Really could have used a napkin at that point.  The next time I did a little better.

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SLURPING:  I’m OK with slurping in a restaurant, especially in Japan.  But, try as I might, I can’t seem to get my slurping nearly up to the volume as the rest of the men in the restaurant.  I mean it’s gotta be a learned art-form.  I can efficiently eat it with my modest slurping volume, but I’m gathering it’s not about being efficient, it’s gotta be about, well…. slurping.  I’ll try harder.

Cycling Japan: Roads and Navigation

•August 29, 2013 • 3 Comments

ROADS AND DRIVERS:  I’ve only cycled 540 miles, but here’s my impressions of the roads and drivers:

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First, the roads have ranged from Good (a small bit) to Excellent (more than half) to Sublime (the rest).  On busy roads there is normally a clean and very wide shoulder or there is a bike path/sidewalk.  On lightly traveled roads, there may not be a shoulder, but there aren’t many cars either, and, when there are cars…

…the drivers have been exceedingly courteous (it’s Japan, would you expect otherwise?).   So far I’ve had one truck pull out in front of me, but even then, I barely had to touch my breaks; nonetheless, he should have waited.  Everyone gives me a very wide berth even if they don’t need to.

OK, so this isn’t New Mexico – but I’ve yet to have a driver give me the finger (happens too often in NM); never had a driver point aggressively at the shoulder (even if there isn’t one, which in NM, there often isn’t) gesturing that I should move over which would effectively put me in the dirt; cut so close to me that one can only assume the driver was either not paying attention or was trying to send the lycra-clad cyclist a message; or yell out his (never a her) window, “get off the fucking road”.

Hmm… that hasn’t happened yet.

In the cities, like in most of the world, there are LOTS of bikes.  Not high-end racing bikes, but commuter bikes, upright bikes with baskets on the front.  In the Sapporo downtown core, I’m certain there are fewer cars than bikes.  However, I keep wanting to tell people, “put air in your tires, it’ll be much better cycling!!!”

On a related note, I had to laugh when I read in the Santa Fe long-term cycling plan that they want to be – and I quote – “the most bike friendly city in the world” (my emphasis).  Please, don’t make me laugh… how about just try to be non-aggressive for now, and we can work on “friendly” later.  Obviously the city planners have not seen just how high the bar is.  Here’s a letter to the editor I wrote a few weeks ago when some moron in a Suburban came so close to me his passenger mirror almost clipped my ear.

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NAVIGATION:  There was a time when I felt I had a pretty good sense of direction. However, somewhere along the way I seemed to have lost that sense.  After three years, I am still convinced the road Alison’s studio is on (Upper Canyon Road) goes North.  But it goes East, and I don’t know when it’ll feel that way to me. Consequently, I can no longer rely on my judgement when it comes to navigation.  I need tools.

So I’ve used a variety of them on this trip with no problems.  Getting lost was one of my biggest concerns. I plotted my route using a Japan map I purchased for my Garmin GPS along with the Garmin Basecamp software (a very quirky and annoying product).  Then I would export each segment to Google Earth to see the details, such as tunnels and the elevation profile.

I also have a paper map; though, it’s scale makes it almost useless.  A bit of common sense, even if combined with a lousy sense of direction, is also handy.  Plus, the signs always have route numbers and destination city names.

The GPS has been great (the Google Earth elevation data is always off, fortunately it’s been overstating the climbs somewhat). The other day I was at an intersection and my notes from the map said to go straight.  The GPS said to turn left.  I decided to put my faith in the GPS, and when I got to my final destination I looked at my computer map, and sure enough, the GPS put me on a smaller road that was a shortcut.  It was a road that I didn’t even see when plotting the route.

So much for the good technology story.  Then again, I won’t go on about the computer and the camera.

Kakunodate, and it’s historic Samurai District

•August 28, 2013 • 3 Comments

 

 

 

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Kakunodate is a small town in Northern Honshu.  It’s painfully charming.  By far the most beautiful version of “old Japan” that I’ve see thus far.  The old samurai district is 380 years old; though, even the rest of the town is meticulous. It must be spectacular during cherry blossom season as most all those streets will be bursting with color (and tourists).

Cycling Japan: Ride days 8/9, August 24-26

•August 26, 2013 • 3 Comments

Ride 8 was a short leg from Mori to the ferry at Hakodateko, and then a 3.5 hr ferry ride to Aomori, which is the furthest northern city on Honshu.  Nothing terribly notable about the ride, but on the ferry, economy class passengers get to choose from three very large carpeted rooms (no shoes!) where you can take a vinyl covered cube to use as a pillow and plop yourself on the floor.  The gentle rumbling of the engines, and the movement over the water put me to sleep in about 8 seconds.

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If you’re wondering why this photo is such crap, well, my camera died.  I bought a new one for this trip only to have it die before I left so I got it replaced only to have the exact same thing happen…again.  So, I shipped that useless piece of junk home (I’ll deal with getting my refund later), and I bought a new one.  Fortunately, this was my rest day in Aomori, so I spent it camera shopping, and working with Japan Post, which I”m sure would normally be pretty easy, if you speak Japanese that is.

This awful shot was taken – Alison, hold your breath – with my phone!!!  One phone camera shot, and it sucks.  I told you. I tried to make it presentable, but PHONES HAVE ZERO DYNAMIC RANGE and no controls, and no lens, so unless you’re in a shady park, or you process the hell out of it in Instagram, it’s really not worth looking at.  There, I said it, and I feel better.

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Ride 9 was wonderful, and one hell of a climb.  For those of you in Santa Fe, it’s a bit more than the ski-basin in both distance and gain, but I’m lugging those panniers, which I don’t do when I ride the ski-basin.

Sun dappled road through a National Park

Sun dappled road through a National Park

Anyway, it was the perfect climb: a twisty road with switchbacks, a good surface, not too many cars, and plenty of 11-13% grades to challenge the old legs.

A thermal spring feeds this lake.  Very strong sulfur smell.

A thermal spring feeds this lake. Very strong sulfur smell.

Free tea near the top of the big climb.

Free tea near the top of the big climb.

A nice place to fill a water bottle

A nice place to fill a water bottle

 
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