Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Japan 2016: Thoughts and Conclusions

Japan is very kid friendly. Before we left Xiaoqin was told by people that strollers, etc. were a handful to manage in Japanese cities. We left the stroller behind, and that was a good choice, since it made buses, subways, etc. easy. What I noticed, however, was that every urinal we found in Japan was usable by Bowen. Everywhere we went, people loved both Boen and Bowen. Hotels and restaurants were happy to make accommodations, up to and including putting us in a room with a play pen, or having a nap area right next to the dining table. Our only problem was finding western style baby food (not because Boen couldn't handle Japanese-style baby food, but because the packaging was more convenient for travelers) and diapers, both of which were solved by having very helpful Japanese strangers put in extraordinary efforts on our behalf. So I'd happily travel in Japan with kids.

Bicycle travel really is a gift. I say that after this year's trip, because the contrasts between this year's trip and the 2009 Tour of Hokkaido couldn't be starker. Thinking back upon it, you might even have a hard time believing that it's the same country. My memories of the 2009 tour was gobs of hot springs, including isolated open air public springs where no one else was nearby. My memories from this year's trip is throngs of crowds at temples, except for those few days in Matsumoto. Country hostels, night markets that we happened to ride into, and wild isolated but pretty spots in Hokkaido were certainly missed.

All throughout our Hokkaido trip, I was continually told that "you're seeing the real Japan." At that time, I dismissed it to the similar (false) American creed that people in cities are not real, just the country side is real. What I now realize is that it's not just the country-side: it's that we were venturing out into a Japan that didn't speak English, where we interacted deeply with local people (despite my limited Japanese), and the terrain in a way that's denied to you when you're not traveling by bicycle or on foot.

In both cases, the Japanese are the most polite, ultra-helpful people you'll ever encounter in the world. I'll never forget the woman who took a half hour out of her day to try to help us find baby food in Shinjuku, the busiest train station in the world. She even apologized for it taking a long time! And of course, the brothers who ran Drum Kan who not only drove us to the hot spring and went in with us, but also cooked dinner and then played a Rock concert for us that evening! But as a cyclist you really do get treated differently than other tourists, and you have to interact with locals deeply in a way I never had to on this year's trip.

One of the subtlest thing in the 2009 tour was how we got cleaner and cleaner as the trip progressed. As cyclists we frequently used public baths, and were constantly exposed to how Japanese scrub and clean themselves. And when I say scrub I mean it: I swear by the time a Japanese person is done with their scrub, the entire upper layer of epidermis must have been gone! Over the 2 weeks of our bike tour, we got so inculcated with this that by the time we got home we were scrubbing like the locals. This time, because we mostly stayed at private hotels and AirBnB homes, that effect never happened. I never felt anything other than being a visitor, whereas in 2009, I truly felt like I'd traveled!

I've often said that I don't think I'll ever go back to Japan on a bike tour. The cycling is horrible compared to my beloved Bay Area: the mountain roads have too many tunnels, and views are few and far between: even on this trip, our short stint on the freeway brought better views than our travels in the mountains. The trains aren't bike friendly. Perhaps as my boys get older we'll contemplate some onsen-to-onsen hiking in some of the Japanese national parks, and that might expose them to the more cultural aspects of travel, but if that fails I might reconsider my prohibition against further cycling trips in Japan.

But of course, this time we got to experience a real Japanese Ryokan, and that's really something that's tough to arrange on a bike tour. You can't beat the service. A $800/night Ryokan in Japan provides far better service, food, and ambiance than a $2,000/night Four Seasons in Hawaii. It's expensive, but it's far better value for money, and I'm a cheap-skate of the highest order and would never consider the latter but the consider the former a nice occasional treat.

All in all, if I had the trip to do all over again, I'd spend more time in Kyoto, skip one night in Nara, and spend a day less in Tokyo. But that's all relatively minor. I'd highly recommend Sugimoto and Matsumoto castle, and spend more time on the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto.
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