This story is written by Ilian Nikolov. He is an enthusiast who likes to explore uncharted territories and tries to stay off the beaten track. 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. This vast and colourful land always has some hidden treasures for an adventure-seeker…
Lonesome wanderers once used to journey the long paths to Edo (Tokyo). They traveled along the mystical mountains of Japan, its tidy villages with rice fields, through picturesque bridges above shiny rivers full of fish. Encounters with samurai, monks and geisha, quests for glory and wisdom were common on the way.
With such thoughts I decided to take an alternative approach in discovering Tokyo and its vicinity. By bicycle, on my own, I would search for those old paths and hopefully – I would lose myself, rediscover new places and find myself along the way. Thus, several journeys around this mayhem
called Tokyo began.
In July, the sun rises at about 4:30 am. Land of the rising sun indeed. By 10 its already hot and humid, which can be particularly hard to the newcomers. The sun is burning and it is highly recommended that you wear sunscreen if you expose yourself for longer periods of time.
Even “better” for a cyclist, Tokyo consists of thirty-five million people living across approximately 130 km in diameter. Getting out is not an easy task – it takes at least five hours through the crazy and colorful maze of the city. I had the feeling that this megapolis will never end, as new parts of Tokyo endlessly just kept on appearing one after the other – shopping and entertainment areas, business blocks, large living areas with packs of tiny houses, then industrial and transportation hubs and all over again… Miles and miles of cities glued to each other in what we now call Tokyo. A very vast ocean of concrete and glass, and yourself as a small desperate pixel somewhere in it.
Eventually one figures out ways to cope with the madness. In my case – a map and a compass (yes, I know), extensive planning in advance thanks to Google Maps, and in a couple of very desperate moments – resorting to the railway system. You are allowed to take a bicycle on trains at no extra charge, but only if you dismantle it and put it inside a bag.
But challenges aside, what is out there to see around Tokyo, if you are on a bicycle? Here are my top three destinations.
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 of Japan. It rises 3776 meters high and offers a spectacular view from the top. I had to go on a separate trip to actually get to the peak, whereas the first time I merely stayed at lake Yamanaka at the footstep of the mountain.
Yamanaka is a perfect location for a family holiday with nice camping sites around the lake. Even though it is still very cold in May to go there, it is still worth it as you may see some beautiful scenes of the blooming cherries on the foreground and a clear sky to actually see the whole mountain. They say Fuji-san is very shy and indeed it takes some luck to seize a day with clear sky and be able to see the whole cone. I confirm.
If you take it one step further and decide to go up, do know that the climbing season opens on July 1 and its 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. Do bring some postcards along, on the opposite side of the crater, an the very peak, there is an active post box. As well as a vending machine!
Don’t expect too much from the mountain itself, its mostly rocks and rubble. This is one of the reasons some Japanese people say: ‘You are fool if you don’t go up mount Fuji once, but are a fool to do twice’. However, I like more another Japanese saying, actually a poem called Waka by Tesshuu Yamaoka, which translate roughly as:
‘Mt. Fuji is good on fine day.
Mt. Fuji is good on cloudy day.
Yet, the figure in itself does not change.’
I still remember my ascend of the mountain on July the 2nd. A crystal clear night sky above with a full moon shining bright enough to guide the way and a sea of flurry clouds below, chasing me up the hill.
Once the seat of the Shogunate, Kamakura is a place full of temples and shrines, including the largest Zen complex in Japan – Engaku-ji. If you are to make spiritual endeavors in the world of Zen, this place is a real must. Among many other landmarks, you may enjoy visiting Daibutsu (the Big Budha) of Kamakura, which is a 90+ ton statue. It is interesting to know that this monster of a statue was moved two feet from its position during one of the largest and latest earthquakes of Japan – the great Kanto earthquake. Gives you some perspective of the real power of nature and its particular furry in Japan.
As for myself, of Kamakura I mostly enjoyed exploring its coast line. Steep hills descend upon numerous bays all around. If you are lucky – you may also find a way up the dense woods of some hills, in order to discover breathtaking panorama from the top. And if you do, a word of advice – wait for the night and I promise a breathtaking view of the curly coast line with lighthouses and small towns reflected 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, portals and the sorts are recovered and quite a curious attraction for the tourist.
However, a true nomad may actually enjoy other offerings of the location. The nearby hills offer trails with all kinds of treasures for the seekers. I myself came about a hidden temple and a waterfall, quite unexpectedly and only after losing my way few times. But I know there are also many hot springs to be discovered, as Hakone too is a volcanic region.
Of course, the weather is always a surprise. This may include mount Fuji, which is well within sight. But whatever the weather, a must-see place, especially on a foggy and misty day at dusk., are the temple doors (tori) of the Hakone shrine, that stick out of the waters of lake Ashi.
There is much more to be told about the actual journeys, encounters, the getting-lost-and-finding-yourself. Apparently I didn’t come across many samurai on my journeys. But still, after 1000 km by bike, every time I was traveling back to Tokyo, not only did I feel the difference between the mountain Zen shrine and the neon lights of the metropolis. I had a sense of two eras, co-existing at the same place and at the same time: the ancient Japanese ways and the ultra-contemporary society.
But every nomad should know that sometimes the adventure to a destination may turn out to be more valuable than the destination itself.
P.S.: On the last week of my stay, I accidentally came across a small, almost secret, second-hand
bookstore. In it, among the thousands of books I somehow spotted a title – ‘Japan 6000 miles on bicycle’ by Leigh Norrie (www.leighnorriejapan.blogspot.com). This is what Japanese call karma… The book is a treat to all who are thirsty for much richer and colorful adventures.