This story is written by Ilian Nikolov, an enthusiast who likes to explore uncharted territories. Although he is a bit of an “into the wild” person, his latest journey brought him to one of the busiest cities in the world, Tokyo.
Lonesome wanderers once used to journey the long paths to Edo (Tokyo). They traveled along the mountains of Japan. Encounters with samurai, monks and geisha, quests for glory and wisdom were common on the way.
With this image in my mind, I decide to take an alternative approach in discovering Tokyo and its vicinity, by bicycle and on my own.
In July, the sun rises at about 4:30 am. By 10:00 am it already is hot and humid, quite hard for a newcomer. The sun is burning and I’m glad I am wearing sunscreen.
Thirty-five million people live in Tokyo, across 130 km in diameter. Getting out is not easy. It takes me about five hours through the crazy and colorful maze of the city. I worry that this megapolis will never end. New parts of Tokyo keep popping up, one after the other. Shopping and entertainment areas, business blocks, large living spaces, packed with tiny houses, industrial and transportation hubs. It seems to me that these are miles and miles of cities glued to each other in what is now called Tokyo. I am starting to feel like a small and desperate pixel, placed somewhere in this huge picture.
I use a map and a compass for orientation, even after extensive planning in advance thanks to Google Maps. In a couple of very desperate moments I resort to the railway system. I am allowed to take my bike on the train at no extra charge. Annoyingly, I had to dismantle it and put it in a bag.
But all the challenges are worth it. Here are three amazing places I saw:
About 100 km west of Tokyo lays the highest point in Japan, mount Fuji. Japanese refer to it as Fuji-san or Fujiyama. Fuji is an active volcano, emblematic for its symmetric conical shape and is perhaps the most popular landmark in Japan. I have to go on a separate trip to actually get to the peak. Instead, I go to Yamakana.
It is still cold, even in May. But it is worth it. I am just in time to enjoy a picture-perfect view: blooming cherries on the foreground and the whole mountain on the background. There are urban myths that Fuji-san is very shy. Indeed, it takes luck to seize a day with clear sky that reveals its whole cone.
The climbing season starts from July 1st. It takes at least 6 hours to the top. I recommend climbing in the first days after the opening (otherwise the place may be swarming with tourists) and doing it during the night, in order to view the sunrise from the very top. Bringing postcards is a great idea as there is an active post box on the opposite side of the crater. And a vending machine.
The mountain itself is nothing special – mostly rocks and rubble. There is a Japanese saying: ‘You are fool if you don’t go up mount Fuji once, but are a fool if you do it twice’.
Once the seat of the Shogunate, Kamakura is a place full of temples and shrines, including the largest Zen complex in Japan – Engaku-ji. I enjoy visiting Daibutsu (the Big Budha) of Kamakura, a 90+ ton statue. This massive statue was moved two feet from its position during one of the largest earthquakes of Japan – the great Kanto earthquake. It gives me some perspective on the real power of nature and its particular furry in Japan.
But I am mostly impressed by Kamakura’s coast. Steep hills descend upon numerous bays around me. I find a way into the dense woods of some of these hills and discover the breathtaking panorama from the top. I wait for the night to come so that I can see the curly coastline lit by lighthouses and small town’s reflections in the ocean.
This place was once a major stop on the “highway” between Tokyo and Kyoto. Hakone served as the checkpoint between two regions. All travelers entering and leaving Edo were stopped by officials, and their travel permits and baggage were examined. The checkpoint, its barracks, watchtowers, and ports are a recovered attraction I am curious to explore them.
However, as a nomad I appreciate the hidden temple and the waterfall I find quite unexpectedly after losing my way. Call it serendipity.
The journey ends after 1000km on my bike. Unfortunately, I didn’t come across many samurai on the way. But now every time I travel to Tokyo I have this sense of two co-existing eras: the ancient Japanese pathways and the ultra-contemporary society that is surrounded by technology.
Featured image: Fabian Reus