The sound is deafening. There are ten of us in the tiny bar, and we’re all yelling at the top of our lungs in the name of “Karaoke”, the national pastime the Japanese use to let their hair down. The bar owner has already had to go next door and apologise to his neighbours for the racket. “HERE WE ARE NOW, ENTERTAIN US”, sing Nirvana, accompanied by a group of very tired but happy Skeddaddlers, celebrating their last night of a fantastic trip.
Scroll back 2 and half weeks and I’m excitedly sat on the plane somewhere above Russia with an air of naivety and expectation, on the way to Osaka.
Once we’d landed and from the word go we were in the capable hands of Vincent, Massa-san and Mike and I don’t think I’ve ever been made to feel so welcome so quickly. I’m sure the large bottle of Asahi dry beer with that first lunch helped too (this was a non-riding day).
The first few days unfolded and saw us visiting some very fine temples in Kyoto, punctuated by the astoundingly polite yet repetitive encounters with groups of Japanese schoolkids (“may I speak English with you?”), followed by the inevitable burst of photo-taking, hand-shaking and smiling. Whilst we were outside of cherry blossom season, the city was wonderfully green and verdant and without the associated crowds of the previous month or so.
We headed north from Kyoto cycling into the mountains on a mixture of pretty lanes, bits of off-road and spectacular landscapes. At this point there were a few hills that introduced us to the Saddle Skedaddle concept of the “cheeky climbs”, which means (Warning – understatement ahead) that you might like to change down a few gears and go a little slower than you were doing so before. However the reward were beautiful descents on excellent surfaces without a car in sight. Blissful!
It was with trepidation we arrived at the “Youth Hostel” that night, but there was no need to worry about any preconceptions such as hordes of kids or unsavoury conditions. A better description would be the “friendliest small hotel I’ve ever been to” and we spent the evening after an excellent dinner writing our names in Japanese and playing cards with our hosts. In fact I could feel my preconceptions about Japan and the Japanese changing day by day.
Another day in the saddle and we’d arrived at the fishing town of Obama on the north coast. I can’t quite believe I’m writing this but we sat in the Onsen (hot bath) soaking our limbs and watching the sun go down that evening over the bay. Beautiful.
In the next couple of days we explored the area by bike, learnt how to cook at a cooking school, attended a traditional tea ceremony and even went to a party where the hospitality was almost overwhelming. Such experiences, such fun, such a complete privilege to visit this corner of the world.
We waved goodbye to our newly made friends at Obama and headed north again to Japan’s “Lake District”, and had a taste of the local precipitation. Riding around the edge of a big lake once the rain had stopped with the adjacent plum trees dripping with rain was atmospheric beyond belief and soon we arrived at what become known at “the James Bond hotel”. I half expected a monorail to be hidden around every corner, whisking uniformed workers off to the secret part of the installation, such was the uniqueness of this lakeside hideaway. Sitting outside on the balcony sipping Asahi Dry beer watching birds of prey (Ospreys I think) dive for fish into the lake remains one of my very fond memories of the whole trip. The birds were onto a good thing and dinner that night was nothing short of spectacular. Could this trip get any better because the bar kept getting higher!
The timing of the route was spot-on, as our legs were getting stronger and the next day was a long one. We climbed into the hills again, this time tasting some more demanding offroad terrain, with the easier option available for those who wanted it. Bravery, large egos and having to keep up were not part of this trip and the sensitivity of the guides in this regard was perfectly done. Another wonderful lunch in the shade of some trees after a big descent and we meandered along to what seemed like the edge of the world. Before us was Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake. We were at the edge of the hills, with the lake 500m below us. This meant another wonderful descent on twisty roads at your own pace, followed by a meander around the lake to the hotel and another soak in the Onsen to soothe those muscles.
The time had come to say goodbye to Honshu (the main island of Japan) and head south to the volcanic playground of Kyushu. We joined the locals and took a combination of above ground trains, underground trains and ferry to reach the port town of Beppu for the second part of the holiday. The landscape was immediately quite different, with steam rising across Beppu making it seem as if the hills were almost alive. We explored the hillsides in generally downhill direction, stopping at beautiful outdoor Onsens tucked away in valleys. The landscape had gotten very odd, all green fields not dissimilar to a very hilly version of the White Peak area of the UK’s Derbyshire Peak District…..Skedaddle also do mountain bike weekends here!! Then one of those moments that I’ll never forget. We turned the corner to see the Aso caldera for the first time. Imagine a crater, 25km across, about 500m deep, with villages and paddy fields in the bottom. We just stood, open mouthed at the views. Here’s what the dictionary would use to define “jaw-dropping”. Once we’d filled our camera’s memory cards, we were off again, headed for the Aso YMCA which was to be our base for the next few days. Between us and the YMCA was a ridiculously enjoyable downhill, featuring a series of hairpin bends complete with mirrors on each to check for oncoming traffic. We rolled into the YMCA that afternoon tired, happy and interested to see what a Japanese YMCA would be like. It was, in a word, fabulous. A newly built enormous log cabin with Onsen in the basement and big windows giving views of distant volcanoes. Volcanoes we would be seeing more of..
The following day was “Volcano day” and for me it didn’t get better than this. It was a long old climb to the only active volcano on the island, Mount Nakadake, but worth every pedal stroke. It was a weird, alien-like environment, with the smell of sulphur everywhere and warnings of higher-than-healthy gas levels meaning we got evacuated from the volcano’s edge at one point. All very exciting and forty winks after lunch in a sheltered valley was the order of the day to calm down. Back on our bikes and after much descending later we came upon a real treat “ a very characterful outdoor onsen with mud baths, rustic facilities and the hottest naturally heated water you can imagine. Amazing again and it’s a slow satisfied ride back to the YMCA for dinner and Japanese Calligraphy lessons.
Over the next few days we explored more of the area, travelling back towards Beppu via the oh-so-trendy village of Yufuin, that had delicious locally brewed beer and plenty of Karaoke bars.
Which is where we came in, singing along to Nirvana and celebrating this wonderful country. My opinions about Japan have been changed, permanently, and so much for the better. I have the warm, friendly Japanese people to thank for that, as well as a fantastic itinerary, a great group and a seamless, slickly managed tour of a very, very high standard. An enormous “Arigato” (thank you) to Vincent, Masa and Mike – Skedaddle guides, ambassadors for Japan, and terrific people. Now I’m sure I saw a Karaoke bar in London the other day…