Dawn in the Land of the Rising Sun

We’ve been in Japan three days now, and my initial impression is this: it is both as foreign as and yet more familiar than I expected. Among the surprises:

  • So far in our Tokyo and Kyoto experiences, there is practically no public WiFi. If you’re lucky and happen to be passing near a rare store with open WiFi, you can get on for a bit using the weak signal. I had read that the Japanese have been relying very much on cell phones for a while and thus have been slow to embrace WiFi for getting on the web, but the reality of how utterly rare it is (and also, how I’ve come to rely on it to get around as a modern-day tourist) didn’t sink in until I got here. From what we could figure out in a couple of stores, mobile phone or portable hotspot rentals are charged by the month but require a contract lasting anywhere from three months to two years. We have not figured out how to get around this. We were lucky to be able to get a wired connection at our hotel in Tokyo.

  • I find it dissonant that, in a culture that is often fashion-conscious and tradition-oriented, facemasks are so ubiquitous. In Tokyo, about a fourth to a third of the people seemed to be wearing facemasks; in Kyoto, much less. I’ll be curious about the countryside once we start biking. Facemasks appear to be part of the national concern with cleanliness . Some studies suggest they may work, though I have to wonder how much of it is simply group identification: “I think of myself as the type of person who wears facemasks” (the same way that I act and think of myself as a Seattle eco-do-gooder). Particularly amusing facemask wearers are the occasional smoker or takeout-coffee-drinker.

  • Speaking of smokers, it’s been a while since I’ve been in a culture where people smoke in eating establishments. In all fairness, smoking is not quite as prevalent as in some other places (such as France), and there seem to be some rules about where one can smoke on the sidewalks.

  • So far, there have been more English signs than I expected (especially in Kyoto). Some of the translations are humorous, but the message (usually) gets across. On the flip side, a surprising number of people (well, store workers and shop-keepers, I should say) know little or no English.

  • Biking on the left side of the road will take some getting used to. Right now it’s a very conscious process confusion to look and walk where I’m supposed to.

The delights:

  • Fresh sushi and riceballs and all sorts of hot, cold, and mysterious packaged foods in convenience stores everywhere! It’s true! And the fresh food is quite good!

  • People have been very friendly and helpful and used to dealing with tourists, even if they themselves don’t speak English

  • The best advice I got was to study katakana, the Japanese syllabary that is used for imported foreign words. I can recognize the symbols (what else would you do on the long plane flight but cram a foreign alphabet?) and am thrilled every time I can not only sound out a word, but also figure out what the similar-sounding English equivalent is. It would be cool if by the end of the trip I could be reading katakana rapidly, because at the moment….well, I’m not.

  • The bullet train is fast. And punctual.

  • People are on their cellphones constantly, mostly texting and browsing. They text as they walk, they text as they ride the subway, they text as they wait—but I haven’t seen texting and driving. Not everyone has their head in their phone, but certainly the majority of people I’ve seen in Tokyo. In Kyoto, this is a less prevalent.

The earthquake and nuclear disaster affected some things in Tokyo: many museums are closed; there is very little non-sparkling mineral water in stores; and the city is obviously not as lit up as it normally is (if things get back to normal by the time we fly back, I’d love to compare!). That’s pretty much it, aside from the fact that tourism is down nationally. Our hosts in Kyoto had almost everyone cancel, even though nothing here is disrupted, from what I’ve seen and read.

Next: assembling our bikes, which were just delivered, and preparing to pedal!

The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes

Formerly an old mining railway, the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes makes for leisurely, scenic biking. So leisurely, in fact, that while on the trail itself I actually biked without a helmet! Try that on the Burke-Gilman, let alone city streets!

The one catch is that the the ground underneath and around the trail is, uhm, heavily polluted with the heavy metals and other poisons used to extract silver from the mines. No wandering off the trail and certainly no eating picked apples!

At the end of this trail, we got on the Northern Pacific Trail and biked all the way to Montana and back. Upon finishing this multi-day bike tour and getting back to our starting point, Plummer, we drove back to Spokane to spend time at our favorite fire lookout.

Picture coming soon…

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Portland to Astoria Century

This weekend a friend invited us to ride a century from Portland to Astoria with a bunch of his pals. It was a fun ride through largely new-to-me territory. Not terribly hard, though tiring in that way that centuries tend to be. We had frequent stops to re-group, a sag wagon that refilled our waters, and rides back to Portland for us and our bikes. It was pretty sweet, except for the chafing my new bike shorts caused me.

It was interesting biking with a new crowd; the ride felt somewhere in between our usual weekend bike trips and the large organized rides we’ve been doing this summer. Folks were relaxed and looking out for everyone in the group, but certainly more hard-core into the cycling world than Knox or I. They seemed more interested in organized events like triathlons than the bike-touring we do, so I appreciated getting a different perspective on the sport.

Before we left Portland, we were underwhelmed at the St. Honoré Boulangerie, delighted in the visual and olfactory pleasures at the rose garden, and visited the well-stocked yet slightly pricey River City Bicycles.

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Marysville-Bellingham bike loop

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While it’s fun to do a bona fide self-supported bike tour, sometimes it’s just awesome to do credit card touring: you bike long and hard, stud that you are, and then relax in a luxurious bath before heading out to a posh restaurant and falling asleep on fluffly pillows.

OK, this weekend’s bike tour from Marysville to Bellingham wasn’t quite that fancy, but it was fun and relaxing nonetheless. Highlights of the trip included the stop at Slough Foods in Edison, the scenic if less than ideal biking on Chuckanut Drive, communing with the deers on Whatcom Drive, and the very pleasant riding on the Centennial Trail. The lowlight of the trip, without a doubt, was running over an indecisive chipmunk that decided it really didn’t really want to cross the road after all.

Knox has a more detailed write-up of our adventure.

Whidbey Island Tour

We made this a long weekend and biked up to Whidbey Island, where we spent two nights reading, napping, and playing video games. The ride up was approximately 50 miles, as we followed the Inter-Urban bike trail to the ferry. The Inter-Urban is very nice biking (though not too scenic) where it exists; unfortunately, it consists of disjoint segments, and getting from one to the next in the absence of signs often involves educated guess work.

The ride back was about 70 miles and surprisingly tiring for all of us. The path itself was fine, so it must have been the staying up late instead of catching up on sleep that did us in….

Knox has a write-up of the weekend.

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