I woke up several times during the night due to the occasional stronger wave or wind gust and stayed awake for several minutes thinking about the strange feeling of exposure of tonight’s camping site. We were sleeping between a big hotel, the backyards of a dozen holiday homes and the beach in what seemed to be a very local community. I had the feeling that we were somehow intruding and disturbing their peace which is something I am never comfortable with. Eventually the Earth had rotated enough for us to see sunlight again and I was happy to finally get out of the damp environment of the tent. As usual we started preparing for another day and hordes of friendly elders slowly invaded the beach for their morning strolls. Japan’s countryside really is an old country.
The plan for the day was simple: follow a flat coastline all the way to Niigata. Also, after two failed attempts at staying in a proper campsite where we could have a shower, we decided to spend a well deserved night in some cheap hotel. A quick check using the wireless of the first convenience store we found allowed us to set the goal for that night: a room right in the central Niigata island.
The coastline from Tsuruoka to Murakami is just absolutely gorgeous. The road alternates between tunnels cutting right through yellow stone cliffs and small secret bays with calm water beaches. There were almost no villages and very few cars passed by us. Our most common companions were motorcyclists, hippiesc families enjoying the beach, and birds of prey; and we really enjoyed the peace of the place. At some point I stopped just before a tunnel to take a couple of pictures (see the one above) and by the time I finally crossed the tunnel Guilherme was already deep into conversation and sharing tea with a Japanese family. As I arrived more tea quickly appeared from the van, carried by a teenager blushing profusely as the father insisted she should practice her English with Gui.
The tea awoke our stomachs and soon we were thinking about lunch. Unfortunately we had not seen any stores or restaurants since early morning so we were happy to stop in the first restaurant we found. We were lucky with our choice and soon we were siting down, facing the sea and eating fresh seafood in a cozy, “fishermen-wife-managed” restaurant. But there is no reward without effort: I was served an entire fish and I only had two chopsticks to deal with it. What most readers probably would not know is how hard it becomes to use chopsticks after you have been riding full time for a couple of days. Your nerves slowly become numb from the constant trepidation and your fine movement ability starts to disappear.
After a great meal, as usual in Japan, we went back onto the bikes for the final push of the day. In front of us were 60 kilometres of perfectly flat road down the coast, all the way to Niigata. We already knew that the long plains could be slightly boring and sometimes harder to overcome than mountain passes but we were not quite prepared for what awaited us. What we thought was going to be a nice coastline soon turned out to be an endless road surrounded by a rather bland landscape of wind turbines and rarefied bush fields. It was a place of nothing in particular: not influenced enough neither by nature nor by man. However, we were suddenly surprised by a huge 40 meter concrete statue of Shinran. For comparison, Christ, the redeemer in Rio de Janeiro is only 30 meters tall. It was very strange especially since the rest of the complex was pretty much abandoned. Later we would find that it was a hot springs complex. (What? learn more)
We soon started to see the beginning of the city and finally had something to distract our minds. Avoiding the highway as much as possible we crazily wandered through narrow streets without much care beyond generally heading west. This didn’t last long as the only way over the Agano river was to somehow use road 7’s bridge, a highway which our map insisted was crossable by foot. After a very weak attempt at communicating our intent to a local family, they almost forced us to cycle with them. Apparently they were going the same way even though we weren’t even sure we got our message across properly. They took us to the bridge and showed us the pedestrian access. We thoroughly thanked them and rocketed towards the city centre trying to arrive before nightfall.
For some reason we were quite excited and decided to race every last kilometre to the hotel, sprinting out of red lights, keeping up with cars, laughing at everyone and being saluted by many. Short wink and smile exchanges with cute drivers while waiting for the light to change and taking deep breaths of pure happiness and joy as our eyes started to flood. If asked, we would say it was due to the speed of the cycling.
The good spirit did not disappear and after a quick shower we decided to wander around the city and treat ourselves to a good dinner. We had donburi at a very traditional restaurant and decided to have beer with it. As a way to justify it we thought back at our trip so far and saw that one third was already done – that was a good enough excuse. For some reason we knew that the best moments were still to come. Not only we would soon cross the Alps, in our greatest cycling challenge, Imperial Japan was to follow. Such a promising prospect!
We left the restaurant, now full with a group of university students serving each other beer in a strangely controlled but relentless frenzy, and walked towards the fancy part of town. The streets were filled with people and buzzing with action. Two hours later we were sitting down again, this time for gyoza and even more beer. I believe that no matter how many gyoza people feed us, we can always have another serving. They were precious.
We wandered back to our room, with warm souls after some very important toasts: to Gui’s knee miraculous recovery, to this incredible trip, to enjoying life, …