Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Cycling in Japan - Omotenashi and Osettai

Our first osettai
Six weeks ago at the beginning of our trip we cycled from Osaka to the port at Wakayama where we planned to catch the ferry to Tokushima on Shikoku. But the ride, over 100 kilometres of mainly urban cycling, took us all day and by the time we reached Wakayama it was nine o'clock. We could not work out the way to the ferry port so we stopped and asked a woman passing with her shopping. As I've mentioned, our Japanese is not great. She told us that her son was dating an English girl and she had picked up a little English from him. But although she did her best, we clearly were some way off from the port and it was clear we were struggling to understand her instructions. We thanked her, hoping we would be able to find it.
'Hungry?' she asked. We nodded and she showed us a restaurant that served a very good udon and then said goodbye.

Half an hour later, as we were halfway through our meal, she came into the restaurant with her husband and handed us a carefully drawn map, annotated in English. She had obviously telephoned her son and asked him to translate everything for her. She gave us the map and checked we understood it properly. We thanked her profusely and she left again, waving cheerfully as she and her husband drove away from the carpark. Our brief enquiry for directions to the port had resulted in us taking up nearly an hour of her time that evening. It was our first experience of the helpfulness of Japanese people to visitors. It was not to be the last.

This man gave us lunch

A present from the campsite owner on Miyajima -
sandwiches  and doughnuts!

In fact we began to be wary of stopping and asking for help, not because we would not get any, but because we felt guilty at disrupting someone's day! In Tokushima we could not find the accommodation we had booked via the tourist office and asked a passing man who looked like he was on his way home from work. He stared at the name of the guesthouse and shook his head. He didn't know it. So he took the piece of paper from us and headed into a local shop to ask the proprietor. Armed with instructions he led us off down the street, along another street and finally stopped outside a small building. Comparing the piece of paper with the sign on the door he informed us we had reached our destination and said goodbye. 'Enjoy your trip,' he said. 

It seemed we were experiencing omotenashi, which means not only hospitality but kindness to strangers. This was explained to us by a man we got talking to in the castle grounds at Uwajima. He was either a neurosurgeon or he was on his way to see his neurosurgeon, on that point we were a little confused. But his English was generally very good and he wrote the word omotenashi down for us in my notebook.

Photcopied Maps 
When we were cycling through a small place called Honai on the west of Shikoku, it started raining. And raining. And raining. We were experiencing yet another typhoon. We took cover outside a convenience store which had table and chairs under a canopy. Three hours and two scrabble games later we were still there. A man came over and asked us where we were going. I showed him my map, which was hopelessly inadequate for our task, on a scale which showed the whole of Japan on a sheet barely bigger than a 1:25,000 OS map at home. He looked at it pityingly and then ran through the driving rain back to his car. Returning with an atlas, he went into the store and photocopied (10 yen per sheet) all the relevant pages to get us up to the top of Shokoku. He then traced the best route with a pen and placed arrows to show the route we should follow, insistent we should understand. What was it with these people? They showed more care for me then most of my relatives did - for me - an absolute stranger.

Nashi pear given to us by local farmer

Gift of a lift up the mountain

And we have experienced the same care and concern constantly during our trip. Only yesterday, while camping at a michi-no-eki (road station) a woman came over to talk to me while Mick was off doing something else. She spoke no English but I managed to explain that we were on holiday and had cycled from Osaka via Hiroshima to our present location (somewhere near Hijemi). She gestured muscle flexing, clearly saying I must be strong. I laughed and shook my head. 'Not strong, tired,' I replied, miming a sleeping pose. She went back to the van where she and her husband were sleeping the night in the carpark (common practice at the michinoekis). Ten minutes later she came over to the bench were Mick and I were sitting watching the night lights flickering on the islands scattered across the Seto Inland Sea. She placed an affectionate hand on my shoulder and handed me a bag of satsumas and sweets. She said something in Japanese which I couldn't understand, smiled and went back to her van. 

For our brief time as pilgrims we experienced another facet of Japanese kindness - the giving and receiving of osettai or charitable giving to pilgrims. During that time we received so many gifts, both physical and in kind, it felt almost overwhelming. Everything from bottles of water, fruit, sweets, a lift up the mountain, a place to sleep, the generosity was stunning. As I understand it, omotenashi is a general act of kindness whereas osettai is more specific - a gift to a pilgrim which - while it assists the pilgrim - also offers a benefit to the giver, in that by assisting the pilgrim, osettai bestows grace on both the giver and the receiver. As such it should never be refused. Another pilgrim, a woman from Sydney called Rachel told me she had been given 10,000 yen as osettai, a gift so generous she felt guilty about accepting it. Feeling unable to refuse the osettai she had decided instead to share the gift with other pilgrims, which I thought a wonderful solution.

It rubs off too. This morning, sheltering under a small hut we were joined by a man pushing a shopping bike and clutching a tatty umbrella. He stood with his back to us staring out at the rain. It felt natural to offer a share of the satsumas and nashi pear we were eating. 'Sumimasen' I said. 'Excuse me'. He turned around and I gestured towards the fruit, offering him some. He took it and thanked us. 'Arigato gozaimasu'. It felt good, sharing our fruit, the three of us sheltering from the teeming rain.

When I have returned home I will try and practice omotenashi. It could be Japan's finest export.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Cycling Shikoku - From Matsuyama to Onomichi via the Shimanami Kaido

The Shimanami Kaido

Room at Sen Guesthouse
It took us five hours to check out of the fabulous Sen Guesthouse - thank you Matthew and Nori for your patience - as we spent a long time chatting with a couple of great Canadians that we met there - talking about everything from the relative merits or otherwise of the British and Canadian education systems,  the advisability or otherwise of travelling Ryan Air, the BBC and how seriously to take Max Kaiser. Somehow the hours ticked away and it was two o'clock before we finally left the hostel. In truth it was so lovely there that we were tempted to stay another few nights but our budget would not stretch so far. And the Simanami Kaidō was beckoning...

Shower room

Getting breakfast ready...


We had only cycled 20k or so when we reached Oura where there was a michi-no-eki and a small beach. We decided to pitch camp for the night. We were close to the road but Mick was convinced that it would be quiet by nine o'clock or so.

A lone guitarist at Oura

Our camp next to the road
The traffic did not go quiet, if anything it got busier with lorries and trucks hightailing it up to Imibari. But the view out to sea was lovely and the air next to the coast was fresher despite the road.

The next morning we took a while to get sorted. By the time we had brewed a few cups of coffee it was gone nine. A few kilometres on, we were feeling peckish - a bag of peanuts had sufficed for breakfast - and pulled in at a little restaurant overlooking the ocean. It was now quarter past ten and the proprietor was still cleaning and intimated that she was still closed. I spent so long with my phrase book trying to establish what time she opened that in the end she gave up and invited us to come in and sit down. She showed us the menu and using one of our few Japanese words we asked for udon - thick noodle soup which a) we loved and b) we could ask for. If the lovely lady was losing patience with us she didn't show it. With various gestures  she conveyed that all the meals on the menu were udon, which one would we like?

'Omaka-se-shi-mas,' I said. (You decide for me). She was having none of this cop out however. Eventually we agreed that I would have udon with tempura. Mick would have no tempura but would have extra rice. I'm not too sure how we got to this point but everyone seemed happy. It was the best udon we had tasted here, superb, served in a little boat with a separate stock that you dunked everything  in before eating it. That's what we did with it anyway.

Superb meal

People who have completed the Shikoku 88 pilgrimage over 100 times
leave a brocade nameslip. Total respect.

One happy chappy

Sated, we expressed our thanks and headed on the road towards the first bridge of the Simanami Kaidō. En route we passed an interesting golf driving range - the driving range consisted of a huge lake. We wondered how this worked - did you bring your own golfballs and resign yourself to only having one shot before losing them? Or did you hire them and were they retrieved at the end of the day? If so, how? We had no idea.

Our favourite juice - 9 veg and 3 fruit

The Shimanami Kaido is a seventy kilometre route connecting Imibari, Shikoku to Onomich in Honshu via seven bridges connecting six islands in the Seto Inland Sea. Although primarily a car route across the islands, six of the seven bridges have a bespoke cycle path. There are three suggested routes across the islands: recommended, intermediate and advanced. Needless to say, we were not opting for the advanced.

We crossed the first bridge(s) the Kurushima-kaikō Ōhashi Bridges, a suspension bridge over 4000 metres long. Halfway across there was a little rest area and we stopped and made a brew of coffee, enjoying the super view of the islands that pepper the Seto Inland Sea, and the huge number of boats of all sizes weaving their way amongst them. By the time we reached the other side I felt unaccountably weary considering the distance we had covered. At the michi-no-eki I found a bench and fell asleep. By the time I awoke it was too late to carry on so we set up camp in the little park there, accompanied by a trio of stone animals, and watched the sun setting over Shikoku. It felt like the end of one stage of our journey and the start of another.

The bridges ask for a small toll

One of the access paths

Camping next to a stone otter

The following day we managed another 20 kilometres and another bridge before we reached Hakata park. We were not in a hurry and the roads were quiet and a pleasure to cycle. We liked Hakata Park so we stopped another night before tackling three more bridges the following day. Our final night on the islands was at Innoshima Amenity Park, accompanied by a huge dinosaur. The whole route is clearly incredibly popular with Japanese cyclists, we saw hundreds of them - on road bikes, on hire bikes, some racing along, some pottering along with their families. All the road cyclists seemed incredibly pleased to see a couple of gaijins cycling the route. One chap came over to us while we sat at one of the rest stations and asked where we were from. When we said 'England' he whooped with delight and insisted on taking our picture, email address and home address. He promised to send a copy of the photo, I wonder if he will.

Finally it was time to leave the islands on the short ferry hop to Onomichi and back into the world of busy traffic. But we agreed it had been an amazing ride. Time now for a few hours looking around  Onomichi before heading up the coast road to Hiroshima.

Monday, 14 October 2013


I will add some words when I have time, but in lieu of this (or maybe its better when I shut up?) here are some pictures from wonderful Matsuyama.

Mick panicked when he saw the size of the head on the beer...
...but managed to explain to the barman how he liked it...


off to Dogo Onsen

These two young men looked after us at the castle

Although Mick was not too sure about the chairlift down...