Ah Tokyo!

So much has been said already in the world press about Tokyo the megacity, it’s teeming but disciplined hordes, it’s Ginza district, it’s Imperial Palace, it’s …, and it’s …, so much so that this humble reporter on two wheels is at a loss as to how to entertain and educate his long-suffering but loyal fans.

But on two wheels he is! Having decided to wrap up my Japan visit with a few days at this megapolis, hosted by some very gracious friends, I called up a rental company and ordered up a bicycle for the day. With characteristic promptness and efficiency it was delivered on my doorstep, and off I went.

What is less well known among people who like to know such things is how amazingly bike-friendly all of Japan and in particular this behemoth of a city is. Tokyo, in a quiet way, gives Amsterdam and Copenhagen a run for their money in terms of bicycle infrastructure and ridership. Bicycle sections are designated and demarcated on all roads and sidewalks, and Japanese drivers, polite and courteous to fault, are very solicitous of bicyclists. In turn, bikes abound. People routinely use their bikes for shopping, for picking up and dropping off children, and for running errands.

The most common type of bicycle in Tokyo is known as the mamachari, which translates to Mom’s Bike. Functional bicycle with a step through design, with baskets or child’s seats, or very often, two child’s seats and a basket. The Cadillac versions are battery assisted, and can be quite hard to keep up with. Here is a young mom riding one such cadillac mamachari, whose picture I took with her permission:

The two kids are seven and four, she told me. Neither she nor I could get the four year old to look at the camera!

More pictures from my ride around the city:

A view from near the Imperial Palace area. The downtown Ginza area is to the left and there are spillover high-rises around these grounds. The picture at the top of the page is also from the same area.

This funky garden below a high rise is the entrance to a subway station.

Not sure what this building is, but it is next to the garden in the previous photograph, and has the same funky vibe.

Continuing with the funk, Ginza Place, a newly opened commercial establishment in the heart of Ginza.

The sections of Tokyo I rode around in were dotted frequently with verdant parks and tree covered walkways. Azaleas were in bloom everywhere.

An example of amazing bicycle infrastructure: a special ramp for bicyclists constructed to access a high bridge from the ground level.

Hatchiko, the legendary Akito dog, which according to said legend, would come to Shibuya station every evening to meet it’s master, and after the master died at work one day and did not show up as usual, continued to show you at the station at the same time every evening for the next ten years.

And finally, since cycling => thirst, Tokyo’s version of the Singapore Sling. Until next time y’all!

The Nakasendo Trail

An old trail, it was a major thoroughfare of the Shogun era, running between Kyoto and Tokyo along the central mountainous region of Honshu island. The Magome to Tsumago section of the trail (about 9 km long) is a particularly delightful section, and remains a jungle trail; many other sections of the original trail have been turned into narrow motorable roads.

I found myself a delightful inn to stay in Magome through Airbnb, the owner Keiko is an amazing hostess and cook, and the inn is done up in impeccable style.Pictures from my hikes on this trail follow:

That’s the view leaving Magome…Mt. Ena at 2200 meters, there’s still snow in patches on the mountain, although the trail itself was balmy!

Buddha statues and Shinto shrines show up frequently but unexpectedly…

Famed cherry blossoms still in bloom here coz of the altitude and cold, elsewhere on Honshu cherry blossoms have already come and gone (but on the plus side, there is a new emperor in town).

A small detour from the trail…

Much of the trail is between tall redwoods..

Gohei mochi, a delicacy of the area made of sticky rice coated in sweet sauce with sesame, at the Magome pass. This alone was worth the huffing and puffing!

A random forest shrine along the trail..

A home in a small village the trail passes through. Wouldn’t mind moving in. Got to learn Japanese though..

Mine host Keiko, with her young trusted friend and helper! Arrigatu gozaimas, both of you, for the terrific stay, the care, the wonderful food, and very enjoyable conversation!

Ah Kyoto!

As I’ve said elsewhere in these pages, you can’t keep a good lunatic down. My shoulder, although functional, still hasn’t healed fully from the nasty fall from two months ago, and prudence would have demanded that I do not ask too much of it. But I’m in Kyoto, an eminently bikeable city, flat, except of course in the places where it is not, but at such places the slope is not stern, at least not for long. So, I rented a bike from my hotel, and I’ve been off all day, examining the city on my two wheels! The shoulder has yet to complain, the rain has been at only a hesitant and apologetic drizzle, and it has all been very enjoyable.

Kyoto was the capital of imperial Japan for nearly a millennium, and it shows in the castles and palaces and magnificent Buddhist temples and gardens dating back several centuries, preserved as Unesco sites away from the main thoroughfares. These thoroughfares, labeled dori, are thoroughly modern and indistinguishable, except for the Japanese signage, from the modern parts of capitals in say Europe. Indeed, this schizophrenic yo-yoing between an essentially western modernity, all time bound and linear, all glass and steel, and a more traditional Japanese aesthetic, all ceremoniously polite, precise, and gracious, all bamboo and wood, plays out often when you pedal away from the main streets into the impossibly narrow side streets, with their charming restaurants and tearooms and cramped but impeccably organized living spaces.

I leave you with some pictures of Kyoto, but I must lead off with a young friend I made here, only twenty-five, but facing a serious health complication and displaying unbelievable grit. Her name is Hyunji, and she is Korean-American, raised in Florida. At the age of two she was diagnosed with pulmanory arterial stenosis, and had a balloon angioplasty done. Now, many years later, it is time for a new valve to be put in. She has opted to go for some still experimental stem cell transplant (the alternative is repeated heart surgery every ten years). She is aware that the stem cell procedure can backfire and she can die, so she has decided to live life to the max till the surgery, traveling, and simply giving of herself. She is an incredibly warm and open person, and my heart goes out to her. I salute you Hyunji!

img_20190501_104509Hyunji, a young woman with grit.

 

img_20190430_163151-1Torii, entrances to Shinto shrines.

img_20190501_135342A Buddha statue hidden in a temple garden.

img_20190501_153303Kyoto’s own golden temple, one of the many Unesco sites here.

img_20190430_132400A typical restaurant, cosy, all in wood. Just a few tables and chairs, along with seats at the counter and a miniature garden, all tucked  away inside a busy market.

 

img_20190430_123046Inside the Nishi food market where the restaurant was.

img_20190501_113605Away from the main drag, a random side street.

img_20190501_134834A pond and garden in another Unesco temple.

 

400 Words!

New beginnings. An experiment. Will 400 words grab and sustain the eyeballs of a world accustomed to 140 and now 280 characters? To quick bursts of information and instant gratification from Facebook-fed dopamine hits?

I have decided to try this format for a while: What I write for the next so many months will have a strict upper limit of 400 words. No more. Less will be perfectly OK. In fact, I hope to not go above 300 too often.

To write in 400 words requires much dexterity. A flair for words. Not to mention pith and percipience, to borrow a phrase from my friend Satyen Hombali, who wrote a superb essay on the Trinidadian language with that title.

The 400 words would probably need some photos to decorate those far corners which the limited words will fail to reach. Maybe they will need to be embellished with a poem. Or sanctified with a song.

To 400 words, a toast!

Day Nine: Khao Lak to Phuket.

We’re done!  Rolled into Phuket after an easy 90 KM from Khao Lak.  We added up the various days’ exact totals from someone’s Garmin (the earlier numbers I’ve quoted were approximations), and it came to eight hundred and ten kilometers. The trip was originally billed as being about 850 KM long, but since they changed the hotel we’d be staying in Phuket, we gained about 30 KM.  No one is complaining of course!

The day started with a group photo, here we are in our Spice Roads jerseys:

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We cycled through Khao Lak, which is a very picturesque town, with cliffs on the ocean side (which immediately reminded me of Southern California, except of course everything else—the vegetation, the soil, the people—was different).  Here is a view of one of the beaches, from the cliff-top road we were riding on:

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Throughout the ride, I’d seen temples ringed with statues of tigers and rooster, presumably these animals are invoked to protect the wats. (I know that most wats have a Garuda on the top and Nagas all around the periphery to protect them, for instance.) I couldn’t get a picture of this earlier for various reasons, but today I got one: a whole wall of a wat ringed by roosters:

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About 15 KM from the entrance to Phuket, we stopped for a break, right on the Andaman Sea.  Here’s a random rider, whooping with joy:

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It has been a great ride indeed!  For me, it was a foray into a whole new world: that of serious road-cyclists, and in particular, of racers. It is a sport unto its own, with speed its only currency. Coming to cycling as I do from the environmental perspective, where the goal is to make cycling the dominant means of transportation, and from the cycle-touring perspective, where the cycle is intended as an ambassador of goodwill and as a symbol of being at peace and in harmony with one’s surroundings, the high-testosterone high-competition world of racing had never quite been my thing.  But now that I have seen it up close and personal (and in fact, for over 800 KM, having been a serious road-cyclist myself), I’m at least partly persuaded that road-cycling and racing may have some merits as a sport unto itself. Certainly, my fellow-riders seemed to enjoy the racing, and enjoyment is just what sport is all about!

But at the center of what made this a great ride is Thailand.  It is a beautiful country, with simply lovely people.  They are kind, they are gracious, and they are forever smiling. Chalk it up to Buddhism, or chalk it up to good breeding, the Thai people are a delight.

A special shout-out to our drivers, Rin (on the left in the picture below) and Suwat.  They drove patiently behind us, fixed our flats for us, made sure our water bottles were filled at all breaks, cut our fruit for us, and pampered us in general, smiling all the time.  Along with Aum and Bottle (whose pictures I have posted earlier), Rin and Suwat made this trip run without a hitch, taking care of all our needs.  Kapun Krop you guys!  Thank you for a fantastic trip!

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(Excuse me everyone, “Five Minutes.“)

Day Eight: Khuraburi to Khao Lak

Today wasn’t bad at all, just eighty kilometers, and they just flew by.  In fact, we lingered at lunch since our hotel at Khao Lak wouldn’t accept new guests till 2 PM.

I did my thing: ride leisurely, checking out the scenery.  One of the first things I saw was this lovely family from Myanmar (as I was to later learn) walking by the side of the highway.  They were wearing what I thought was face-paint, but which I later learned was thanaka paste, make-up obtained by grinding the bark of the thanaka tree, part of the culture of Myanmar.  It turns out that there is a large number of people from Myanmar who live in Thailand under work-permits, but who are not allowed to own cars or scooters.  They can only walk to their places of work (or wherever), or cycle about. Anyway, here is the family.  They didn’t understand any English, so I couldn’t speak much to them, but I did learn that the girl is ten years old. From the body language I could infer that the lady under the parasol is the little girl’s mother, and I suspect the other two would be a cousin or aunt and a grandmother.

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The scenery continued to be like yesterday, ups and downs, with dense vegetation on either side, lovely shades of green all around.  Here’s a sample:

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For one of our breaks, we pulled into a roadside stall, run by a Muslim lady.  She seemed to be wearing what looked like a salwar kameez.  I didn’t want to potentially embarrass her by asking about her clothing, so instead I asked her if I could take her picture. Here she is:

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Another long break was in the town of Takua Pa.  We had iced coffee at a coffeehouse run by a lovely family, with a tragic history.  First, here is the charmer, who I spotted as soon as I went it.  I was impressed by how expertly she wielded her cutlery:

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Turns out the owner, a very gracious lady who I couldn’t speak to too much because she didn’t know any English, had lost two daughters and her husband in the tsunami.  We were by now in tsunami country, the portions of Thailand most affected. Takua Pa is not on the coast, but is not far from it, and the lady’s daughters and husband perished when they’d gone towards the coast for some work. But the lady carries on, smiling.  Here she is, pictured with her son, who also runs the restaurant (the charmer above is this son’s daughter):

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From Takua Pa, we cycled over to the Tsunami memorial, right on the coast.  They have since built a giant Buddha statue on the beach, and I was quite struck by it when I saw it: it seemed to radiate peace, and had a very calming effect on me.  Here is a picture:

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We are now at another lovely beach resort hotel, the Apsara, in Khao Lak.  The waters are serene, and the beaches are wide with white sand.  It would be heavenly to come back later to these areas and spend longer time.  But we leave tomorrow for our last cycling day, 90 KM to Phuket.

Day Seven: Ranong to Khuraburi

Still dead from yesterday’s 140-odd KM ride, I took off today for an almost as grueling 128 KM ride to Khuraburi. However, I made an important decision: today, and for the next two days, I’m going to ride the way I like my rides to be—relaxed, lots of short rest breaks and camera breaks, and with as much mingling with the local people as possible—instead of the full-fledged preparation for the Tour de France that we seemed to have been indulging in.  Not that there’s anything wrong with training for the Tour de France of course, but it was just not my thing. Now, exactly one other person thought like me, Michael, a retired university administrator who lives in North Carolina, so Michael and I rode a very leisurely ride today, securely positioned at the back end of the pack, most of the rest being typically a good half hour at least ahead of us.  One of our guides Bottle (bless his heart) and one van (driven by Suwat, bless his heart too) stayed with us.

It was the right decision to have made, and today’s felt more like the ride I’d done with my buddy Partha in Malaysia a few years ago, only much longer. The scenery was gorgeous, we were once again going up and down rolling hills with dense vegetation on either side. And 128 KM later, we pulled into a lovely wooded resort hotel, set in jungle-like surrounding, with its own lake.

More in pictures:

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A major boulevard in Ranong we spent time on this morning before we hit the open road.

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The roadside looked like this much of the time.

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A typical cottage one would see by the side of the road; sometimes you’d see several together.  Typically, plantation workers live in these houses, Bottle tells me.

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Bottle! His real name is Chanwit. He’s really looking forward to the baby girl that’ll be born early next year!

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The rearguard.  That’s Michael on the left

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We were not far from the coast, and there were these mountains on our east whose lower reaches we were passing through, so fairly often we’d see rivers like this run down from the mountains towards the sea.

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A small settlement on a road perpendicular to our road.

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Another sample of the scenery that accompanied us throughout.

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We are now far enough south that we are starting to see Muslim communities.  This picture was taken at a snack shop by the first mosque I saw: it had a school adjacent to it, and the kids had just been let out. This kid wasn’t shy, she was charming actually. She was older than the others in that snack shop, and may be related to the owner.

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More charmers!

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At our lunch stop.  This 13-year old is the daughter of the owners.  She came over to practice her English with me, goaded on by Bottle, our driver Rin, and of course her doting mother. We had a great time together.  The restaurant the family runs must be doing quite well, since this girl is being sent to Singapore soon for a short stay for some tutoring.  (I met her cousin outside, who’d done a similar stint in New Zealand.)

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The scene from my room window, at the Khuraburi Greenview Resort.  Very beautiful place.  But lots of walking up and down steep garden paths to get to and from our rooms, and after three days of hard riding of well over a hundred KM a day, my legs were looking around for an elevator.

Tomorrow we go to Khao Lak, 80 KM away.  After this intense riding, I’d hesitate to call tomorrow’s ride a “short” one: it is quite possible that my legs will refuse to pedal that long.  We’ll see…