It’s Chad’s first time in a hostel, and I can’t say he’s thrilled about it. I loved it, hidden in a small cove of Onomichi downtown area, we slept on futons on the floor and heard whispers of travelers through the thin walls. There was a magical garden in the back near the outhouse toilet and cats hidden in the trees. There was even a vintage closet full of great Japanese souvenirs you could buy at the front restaurant. We arrived in Onomichi last night, a port city in between Osaka and Hiroshima. We had researched great beachy things to do, and this bike ride is all the rage online.
Japan is a beautiful island with hot, tropical weather, but does that mean that they enjoy the beach and that they have a beach culture? Absolutely - not. Everything I’ve learned about Japanese culture leans conservative, and laying out in a bikini while tanning isn’t the most desirable thing to do despite the fact they have crystal clear waters and sunshine. I did a bit a research, and it turns out they have a few reasons for not beaching it; they work a lot, they follow strict seasonal rules so after summer months beaches close down despite the weather being hot into October, and they don’t love being tan so if they do head to the beach they really cover up.
I decided to see for myself. Shimanami Kaido is a bike path that goes from one Japanese island to another. We planned to bike from Onomichi to Setoda Sunset Beach, considering we’d be hot from biking around 25 miles. From there, we’d take the ferry back to Onomichi and head onto Hiroshima. Sounds like a plan! Beautiful islands, bridges, views, and then jumping into water at the end.
Too good to be true. It was one of the strangest, hottest, bike rides we’ve ever completed. We started off at 8am, getting on a ferry to the first island with a bunch of school kids and their bikes. We ferried through the port, which is industrial to say the least, and I figured once we got into the other islands the industrial vibe would change. That wasn’t the case at all.
As we rode our bike off the ferry onto the Shimanami Kaido path blue line trail, we rode past factories and ship making facilities and strip malls. Large cranes stood overhead as was shifted gears going up inclines. The landscape was pretty, but the industrial vibe threw me off.
The water taunted me the entire way, beautiful crystal clear but no beaches in sight. Barricades more like it, alongside the pretty lapping waves. We climbed a 3% incline up to the first bridge, which was a great view, and hoped the next island would be more nature, less industrial.
Wrong again, we ride through more factories, empty village towns, with overall an extremely lonely vibe. You know that feeling of lonely you get, when human spirit isn’t felt and you’re kind of left with just empty machinery? No? I didn’t know it until this bike ride.
With temperatures reaching 95 degrees I really, truly though the beach would have people on it and in the water swimming. I couldn’t help but think it cannot be empty though only a few weeks into off-season, people must want to cool down. We rode our bikes down a pretty bike lane that had palm trees lining the way and small staircases down to the water, but no people. I compared this to the US or Europe, where people would be down the steps swimming and sun bathing in the crystal clear water to matter what season, as long as it’s hot.
We were just about to the beach when we saw a line of stuffed people. Yes - you heard this right - stuffed people sitting on benches. The beach was deserted.. except for these stuffed people. It felt fitting. It felt like a scary movie, actually a scary movie could easily be filmed on these islands for sure, that sounds like a really good screenplay ready to be written. It looked like beach-goers were there one minute, and the next they all grabbed their things and made a run for it. Leftover cafe chairs were knocked over, flags were ripped and hanging up, a few people walked along the beach. I was determined to swim so I went in and dunked my head but the water was filled with plastic and luke warm. Weird art sculptures are scattered around. Occasionally a biker will pull over and walk out onto the beach to have a look and then quickly get back on their bike to keep on going (you can ride this route all the way through to Imbari). I have a feeling that if we continued onward, the best was yet to come, but we were ill-prepared for a 50 mile bike ride. Oh well. We sat in the shade to cool down and rest, and then showered off to get back to the port much earlier than expected.
The ferry brought us by the islands we just biked, giant industrial ships in the port, a Honda cargo ship, cranes and concrete docks.
Just like that we were on a train to Hiroshima, tired, sore and ready to shower.
“This would be a great pond for pond hockey.” We’re at a Zen Buddhist Temple and Chad whispers this in my ear as we stare out into the beautiful gardens. We’re on the other side of Kyoto in the Arashyama neighborhood and we’re checking off our local temples and shrines. This one, Tenryū-ji, is a World Heritage Site (there are many in Kyoto) and it’s very peaceful. There is a bamboo forest here that you often see in tourism advertising and it’s included in a scene in Memoirs of a Geisha, though seeing in person was underwhelming and crowded.
We make our way out of the temple, stopped at the cutest (kuwaii!) bakery ever, and then started our hike up the side of a mountain to see Japanese monkeys. I’ve never seen monkeys in the wild before, and I really don’t like going to zoos, so I’m skeptical I’ll feel good about the situation. Up we go, with all the other tourists in Kyoto. We get to the top and I am pleasantly surprised. It’s not too crowded and the monkeys really are free. Yes, we can go into a cage to feed them apples and bananas, which isn’t very natural, but other than that they are wandering around there on the side of the mountain. The babies were obviously my favorite, and we watched them for most of the time we’re there. Every time an adult male monkey starts to get angry, some of the workers will run over and shoo them away to tell them to stop behaving like that. The babies cling onto their mamas backs and run by our feet. They pay really no attention to us as they go about their day, and when they want to get away from humans they climb up into the mountain and find a good tree to hang out in. I approve of this monkey situation.
Being around all the babies makes me miss little Penny so, so, so much it hurts and I have to stop thinking about her because I may end up getting on a plane to go home to her. Don’t. Think. About. Your. Dog.
We head back down the mountain to the train station, clocking in another 8 miles walked for the day. The good news is that we burn off all of the baked goods we ate.. the bad news is.. well is there bad news?
We head back into Kyoto for dinner, wandering around the main strip of restaurants and nightlife. Kyoto is really quiet at night other than this main little area; our guide told us that Kyoto is like old men going to bed early. But this street is filled with people trying to find a bite to eat. We’re feeling sushi so we find a spot on Google, though when we stumble upon it, there is no sign outside. We slide open the door and five Japanese men look up at us from the sushi bar and stare. Okay.. we’re doing this. We walk in, take off our shoes, and slide down at the far end into the bar. The sushi chef smiles along with his wife who is behind the counter. We order a set of sushi and some Asahi beer and my nerves go away a bit. I’m sure they are talking about us as we sit patiently and wait for the food. The sushi chef cuts my sushi in half for me because it was too big(?) but I don’t mind because it takes longer to eat this way and I can savor every moment. The sushi is served by hand, without plates, right in front of us on the bar. Every single bite was pure magic. Soon we’re no longer stared at or talked about, though we are asked if we are famous actors in New York City (we say we’re from close to New York because that’s easier than saying Connecticut). Sadly, I say, no we aren’t.
What a day, sushi, shrines, and snow monkeys.
“Chrys-tham-them-mum… Chrystham-them-mum.. Chrystham-themum!” We were on the first course of our 9 course Japanese dinner (what were we thinking, seriously??) and our server, a cute, little Japanese woman dressed beautifully in a kimono, was explaining an ingredient on the menu, chrysanthemum. We taught her how to say the English word, and she repeated it over and over. As she slide out of the room (literally slid, bowing coming in and out of the sliding doors to our room) we could hear her walking down the hallway to fetch the next course saying “Chrys-tham-them-mum… Chrystham-them-mum.. Chrystham-themum!”
I was completely filled to the brim after course 4, but we pushed onward. After two hours, we were both ready to stand up off the floors, stretch our legs, and go to bed. Chad and I are eating meat on this trip ‘traveltarians’ or ‘flexitarians’ (though we’re mostly sticking with fish) and this was a meat heavy meal so we were both feeling it. I think I’m getting enough meat for the rest of my life and I’m really missing vegetables. I’ll be happy to be going back to vegetarian once we’re back.
Gora, Hakone was so incredibly relaxing after Tokyo. It rained the entire time we were there, which was really nice because it kept the air cool and we went in the hot springs for most of the night and early morning. We also swam in the pool, which as filled with dragonflies. We read books and relaxed before we fell asleep on our futons.