Sitting on the ferry to Japan I began to get excited by the prospect of an easy six days ride from Fukuoka to Kyoto. A week of sensible, courteous drivers who are not addicted to resting their hands constantly on their horns, smooth predictable roads, beautiful scenery and I'd given myself an extra day to get there so I wouldn't have to push myself and could just enjoy the ride. They even drive on the correct side of the road in Japan (although I didn't realise this until a car was driving straight at me). As I wandered through immigration I spotted two customs officials in front of my bike on their knees with toothbrushes in their hands giving it a good clean. Such good service. Japan is obsessed with cleanliness and even with my freshly washed kit on I already felt a little out of place (a feeling which intensified enormously over the week as sweat and mud encrusted my body). With my sparkling bike I stepped out into the Japanese sunshine.
The first problem I encountered was crossing onto the main island. Bicycles are banned from the motorway bridge which crosses over the water and also from the main road which passes through the tunnel under it. After many wasted miles searching for an alternative bridge or a ferry I was finally pointed to a very poorly signed pedestrian tunnel. Once I emerged on the other side, darkness fell pretty early leaving me camped in a slightly spooky bamboo wood, surrounded by large spiders casting their enormous webs ready for me to stumble into, among the patches of gravestones which took up most of the flat patches of land available, and with a slightly disappointing 100km for the day, some of which had been spent riding round in circles.
The following day began with a puncture and a broken spoke and I again struggled to get in a good distance. More punctures following over the next couple of days and when I tried to change one of my inner tubes I realised that the hole that had been drilled in my wheel to allow two different valve types was not big enough. Relentless rain ensued dragging nightfall quickly with it and I managed to allow my front light to be ejected from my bike while I was riding without me noticing. I struggled to find somewhere to camp as it was all very built up so in my wet and thoroughly grumpy state, when I saw a bamboo wood alongside a river I jumped down and pitched my tent managing to slice though my little finger with a piece of bamboo in the process which generated a healthy amount of blood, however I was too fed up to be a big sissy and fall over as would be my usual course of action in this situation, instead just opting to stick a big plaster on my finger and get on with it. Should maybe have paid a little more attention to it as a couple of days later I could still peer deep into the finger. I fell asleep with the rain still beating down on my tent.
I was rudely awakened just after midnight with soaking wet feet. I heard splashing as I lifted them away and discovered a great pool of water at that end of the tent. I thought the tent was leaking so I peered outside and to my horror I discovered the river flowing through the foot my tent. Apparently rivers rise in times of heavy rainfall! By the time I had thrown the few bits I had out inside the tent into a bag, I was sat in a couple of inches of water and the guy rope at the foot of the tent was a foot underwater. I took down the tent in record time (three pegs short) and hauled all my soggy kit up onto the road and under an overpass where I sat like a hobo waiting for the sun to rise not particularly pleased with myself.
The following night I thought I'd try to be smart and head for the central train station in Kobe to enjoy a sleep on a seat where rain or rivers couldn't torment me. Instead, I found myself curled up in a soaking wet sleeping bag camped in a park as there was nowhere for me to sleep in the extremely busy station. It is fair to say that I wasn't enjoying my Japanese experience.
It was therefore with great relief that the following day I was united with my cousin John in Kyoto, enjoying a Japanese curry and sampling the delights of pachinko which is sort of like the Mecca Bingo of Japan for all ages. Having a cousin educated in the culture and history of Japan at Cambridge University certainly has its advantages as we spent the next few days enjoying some of the local sights; eating horse, conger eels and sea urchin's ovaries; and enjoying the hot springs butt naked with 20 or so Japanese fellows. During this time I also learnt that green tea ice-cream is delightful, John's girlfriend is an excellent cook and that pumpkin, marshmallow, custard, chocolate and sweet red bean paste pizza really doesn't taste as good as it sounds.
With a new kindle, bike spares and a full belly I cycled the few miles down to Osaka for a night at a hostel inside Nagai stadium (where England slightly disappointingly drew 0-0 with Nigeria in the 2002 world cup) before rolling down to the ferry port in he morning to relax for two days with my new found cycling friends Chris and Lucy who have also travelled from Britain. I sampled one cup sake which is apparently the homeless mans choice of drink in Japan and found myself singing 'I want to ride my bicycle' in the karaoke bar with Chris to almost rapturous applause. I have no idea what's come over me recently!
'Ambition is a poor excuse for not having enough sense to be lazy' Milan Kundera
As I rode into Busan on a slightly weary looking bike, wearing increasingly hole-ridden cycling shorts and sporting a fresh Charlie Brown-esque haircut, I couldn't help but think that 6 months ago I was meant to be enjoying a life of flat beds, regular company and no more saddle sores when I reached this point. By a rough finger measured calculation on my tiny, crumpled world map, I estimate I've still got almost two thirds distance still to cycle before I return the sunny shores of Britain.
China provided more smooth roads on the way to Qindao, past miles and miles of fish farms and yet more miles of wind turbines. The first potholed section I'd experienced the whole time I'd been in China resulted in my first broken spoke, so as I clinked into Qingdao I discovered my first anti-cyclist area of China. Not only do they try to break your bike as you approach, they also ban bikes from many of the roads. Apparently this is becoming the case in a number of cities in China to help the flow of motorised traffic. After weaving my way through the narrow streets I arrived at the final destination of my first Chinese experience.
Qindao is home to Tsingtao beer and the street cafes have lines of kegs ready from which you can purchase fresh beer by the plastic carrier bag to take home or just to enjoy through a straw. The cafes are dirt cheap and will even cook food for you that you bring along. The hostel was a busy place and one evening, when looking for some conversation, I was invited to join a group of folk heading to a karaoke establishment. For those who know me well may be surprised to hear that I agreed to join them and I was surprised myself as the word 'sure' exited my mouth. As I'm sure you know, karaoke is hugely popular in this part of the world. We hired a private room for the evening and entered a very expensive looking, high tech suite. Unfortunately they didn't seem to spend that much money on providing a good range of songs. I therefore spent the evening listening and singing along to the likes of Brittany, The Black Eyed Peas and everyone's favourite, Lionel Ritchie.
I arrived in Korea by ferry and as I rode the short distance from the port in Incheon to the hostel in Seoul with my sparkling new spoke attached, the world seemed so peaceful again despite being in the world's second largest metropolitan area. I don't know whether it's because I have become slightly deaf or if the horns really are sparsely used and restricted to safe decibel levels when applied. Drivers are much more predictable and polite and the world seems slightly more ordered again. I arrived at the hostel and could hardly believe my eyes. You normally expect youth hostels to be cosy, informal places full of grubby looking travellers but the two hostels I've stayed at in Korea (Seoul and Busan) have been more like executive hotels with slightly out of place looking bunk beds in some of the rooms. The majority of people I have seen have been dressed in suits attending business meetings in the conference rooms. Both hostels have been huge and fill modern high rise buildings. The one in Busan even offers a sauna, swimming pool, driving range and a pro shop! I sampled the swimming pool yesterday and after completing a few drills in the main pool I relaxed for the next 45 minutes or so in the jacuzzi in order to pay heed to one of the warnings on the long list of rules in the entrance to the pool which states that 'swimming too hard can cause eye disease'. Later in the day, with eyes still in good working order, I headed to a Kiwi bar on the beachfront where I sat next to a Scot watching England struggle to victory over the Argies. It was just like being back in Aberdeen listening to the cheers as Jonny Wilkinson put his kicks wide!
It seems that the Koreans seem to be competing with God to see who can create the tallest and most numerous big things. High rise buildings sprout up everywhere between the tree covered hills which would once have dominated the landscape. When Koreans do something, they seem to put 100% effort into it. They are obsessed with technology and seem unwilling to share it with me. They use a different system for mobile phones here and when I tried to see if I could purchase a cheap handset I was told that I couldn't due to the fact that I was foreign. I was however able to enjoy the end of the IAAF World Athletics Championships on the large, flat screen TV in my hostel room in Seoul but was slightly gutted that I didn't arrive in Korea slightly earlier as I made it to Deagu just four days after Mo Farah's victory in the 5,000m.
Tomorrow I head to Japan in search of my cousin John's company, some new tyres for my bike and my third kindle of the trip so far to provide me with some sanity when I'm on the road meaning I won't just be putting up my tent and going to sleep at 7:30pm anymore. For now it's back to the hostel for more pot noodle before heading out to join the thousand or so fans crammed into the 54,000 capacity world cup stadium in order to sample some Korean football as the mighty Busan l'Park take on Daejon Citizen. Apparently it's around League 1 standard so should feel right at home after watching Swindon over the years. Come on you ... (what colour do they wear?).