Saturday, 24 September 2011

76. Boat to Busan

My lessons on Korean language, history and where to find the best dog meat soup on the penninsula began while I sat in the shade, shuffling my lunch around on its polystyrene plate with my throw-away waribashi. Jun had spotted a cyclist-in-need when I was manhandling all the gear onto the ferry in Fukuoka and came down to lend a hand and a big smile. As we searched for the open floored dormitory third class room that I had been assigned, he asked if I was geologist, collecting rock samples from each country along the way. When we found the lodgings, fellow passengers were marking their territory with thin mattresses and setting up defensive fortifications with their suitcases.

Jun and I retired to the rear deck with my lunch, watching Fukuoka slip away. Jun was on his honeymoon it turned out, a week's cycling around typhoon whipped and drenched Kyushu. Unfortunately his wife had gotten a bad cold and was resting in their quarters. They were on their way home now, close to Seoul and where I will take the ferry to China from and Jun invited me to visit them when I am in Incheon. When I was done eating we began with the language basics and the cycling essentials - toilets, food and camping options. Jun is a couple of years older than me and works as a sound engineer in Incheon international airport. Like all South Korean men he had to do three years military service before he turned thirty-five, and he spent his time in the late nineties in the navy. He lost friends last year when the North Korean military sank a South Korean gunship, killing 46 sailors in an unprovoked attack. The event was one of the more serious of many that has brought the two long-term adversaries close to all out war. The threat of nuclear weapons and historical involvement of the US, the former Soviet Union and China, however, has always meant that compromises and forbearance won out over desires for revenge for an all out battle on the penninsula that was divided in a deal between the big boys after the Second World War. With the capital of the democratic South lying only 40 kilometres below the so-called demilitarised zone, Jun said that current predictions are that in the event of the North initiating an attack, Seoul would be destroyed in less than five hours. Jun was clear that the presence of the US military in South Korea is essential to the Republic's survival, despite many South Koreans being opposed to their presence.

Back once again on the right hand side of the road in pulsating Busan's Friday night traffic, it was clear that Japan's typically mild-mannered driving habits were a memory. Red lights are merely suggestive and buses and taxis pull up without giving much warning as motorbikes using either the road or footpath depending on which one they think they can squeez along. I found my way to the apartment building where my South African host, Marguerite, lives with several other teachers from many English-speaking nations, including Ireland. My introduction to Korean cuisine and nightlife was swift and fuelled by Korea's national rice-based spirit, so-ju, a vodka-like potion that could be used just as effectively thinning paint.

Busan, South Korea
Pedalled: 50,077 km

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

75. Genki days

On my last two nights in Nagasaki I was futon-surfing with Asuka, a medical student who had just returned from an African trip. One evening we talked about some Japanese issues and she disagreed with my comments on Fukushima being a potential threat and also felt that the Japanese "had paid enough" with regard to World War II and it would be better if we could just move on from the past. Unfortunately though I think that it will require first a full acknowledgement of the extent of Japanese war crimes during the Second Sino-Japanese war and WWII before people in the respective nations involved will be able to heal and move on and Takahashi Tesuya at the University of Tokyo agrees: "in order for Japan to regain the trust of East Asian peoples, it is important for it to make clear its responsibility for the past, so that it can actively fulfill its role in the construction of international order based on just peace". Perhaps then, as he points out, can Japan more legitimately expect an apology for the war crime of the atomic bombings from the US.

Three of the most important issues regarding atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial army during the Second World War concern the 1937 mass rape and massacre in the former Chinese capital of Nanking, the issue of forced sexual slavery during World War II involving a couple of hundred thousand so-called comfort women, especially from Korea and Japan, and the covert biological and chemical warfare carried out by Unit 731 between 1935 and 1945. As the extent of these of these issues has become clearer, they remain as stumbling blocks to improving relations with China and South Korea as well as several other nations. The Allies assisted in the covering up of evidence of some of these war crimes in the aftermath of Japan's surrender as their was primary focus was on curtailing the spread of communism. During the 1980s and 90s, controversy surrounded the issue of government-approved history textbooks for high school students in Japan that failed to discuss the actions of the Japanese Imperial army in a critical manner but most of the history books used today contain references, although sometimes brief, to the above events. 

Genki is word of the week. It translates as energetic, exciting or full of life. "O genki desu ka?"(How are you?"). Response... "Hai, genki desu" (Yes, I'm well).

The last two cycling days in Japan from Nagasaki to Fukuoka were not always genki as Typhoon No.15 resulted in a tremendous headwind, that at times made it difficult to keep Rocinante moving forward. Around noon yesterday the odometer reached the fifty thousand kilometre mark but I was too busy trying to avoid getting blown in front of a truck to notice until I was sheltering a few kilometres down the road. Gradually though the wind died down and the rain eased off as I came in along the coast to Fukuoka, the end point of Japan and the embarkation point for the ferry to Busan in South Korea this coming Friday morning. In the meantime I am staying with Anita, a friend of my cousin's, who had an amazing dinner prepared when I arrived in last night.

Bar the obvious broken limbs, Japan has been an amazing experience and I've met many great people along the way and thoroughly enjoyed my time here. The past couple of weeks cycling along the quieter roads of Shikoku and Kyushu have been wonderful. Here are a couple of photos from the Japan album that I have uploaded here.

Fukuoka, Japan
Pedalled: 50,055 kilometres

Saturday, 17 September 2011

74. Pilgrimage to Nagasaki

There was light drizzle falling yesterday as I came into Nagasaki. I passed a Harley Davidson garage and pondered for a moment the irony of opening a business to such an All-American dream vehicle in this city that was literally wiped off the map, or at least the aerial photos, when the Fat Man was dropped on the city on the 9th August 1945, the second atomic bomb to be dropped in war. The first was three days previously in Hiroshima, when the US decided to use its recently developed atomic bomb to force the Japanese military government and Emperor to surrender, thereby they argued saving the lives of countless American GIs in an invasion of Japan, in last act of World War Two. They also undoubtedly wanted to test their new weapon and provide justification for the two billion dollars invested in the Manhattan Project that oversaw the development of the bomb. Japanese cities that had been selected as potential targets for the atomic bombings, were left off the regular US air force bombings that had already destroyed many of the urban areas including Tokyo, as a clear sheet was desired to see the extent of damage that a bomb would cause. Nagasaki was a secondary target, in fact, when Major Charles Sweeney took off in a B-29 Superfortress from Tinian in the west Pacific but Kokura city had to be abandoned as the primary target when visibility failed to improve.

Nagasaki had long been an important link with the outside world had been founded, in fact, by Portuguese in the mid 16th century and became an important Roman Catholic centre in East Asia until the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637 sought to ban foreigners from Japan under a national isolation policy. Dutch traders were allowed to remain and subsequently Nagasaki gained a reputation as Japan's window to the wider world outside and became a centre of study of European science and art. By the Second World War Nagasaki's industrial importance, in particular ship building, ensured it a high place on the target list that had been drawn up.

Nagasaki Peace Park

The death toll from the bomb was between 70,000 and 80,000, including several thousand conscripted Korean workers who took many years to get recognition in Japan for their losses, most dying in the initial impact, although the effect of the radiation exposure continued to affect many people for years to come. Six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan announced its surrender.

Every year the mayor of the city issues the Nagasaki peace declaration that calls for the abolishment of nuclear weapons and for the countries with nuclear weapons to move towards the conclusion of the Nuclear Weapons Convention. This year's declaration referred to the Fukushima disaster and asked "Have we lost our awe of nature? Have we become overconfident in the control we wield as human beings? Have we turned away from our responsibility for the future? Now is the time to discuss thoroughly and choose what kind of society we will create from this point on."

Nagasaki, Japan
Pedalled: 49,855 km

Sunday, 11 September 2011

73. Fuku-what?

Pedalling down the river from Kyoto towards Osaka, a fearsome black wall of cloud began to engulf central Osaka. I arrived in the suburb of Kawachiiwafune with a few hours to spare before the slow moving Typhoon Talas arrived. Ever since the Osakan cyclists I had met in Takayama a couple of days previously warned me about the typhoon, I had followed the storm tracker on the Japan Meterological website and watched as the projection initially shifted to the west but the Kansai region was still in its path. I had contacted Steven and Yuri, family friends who had invited me to stay with them, and they said it was no problem to shelter with them until the weather cleared up. So for six days at the turn of the month, I stayed with Steven and Yuri and their wonderful three year old daughter Juli. Typhoon Talas was moving slowly and dumped a lot of water. While the area I was staying in seemed to miss the worst of the storm, neighbouring areas in Nara and Wakayama prefectures experienced several deaths, lots of flooding, landslides and collapsed bridges, leaving many villages in the mountainous areas accessible only by helicopter. Between earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, it would appear that natural hazards continue to question Japan's right to be here.

It is only six months since the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami that caused almost 20,000 deaths and resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, when the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant was overrun by the 15 metre high tsunami wave that ultimately resulted in several of the reactors going into meltdown. The extent of the radiation fallout is still being unravelled. Or ravelled up perhaps. The Japanese government apparently adopted a policy of non-disclosure about the true extent of the damage and only reluctantly moved the accident rating from an initial four to the highest rating of seven, Chernobyl being the only other nuclear accident to warrant such a rating in the history of the nuclear industry. While the radiation fallout levels are much lower at Fukushima than at Chernobly, the accident is much more complex due to the number of reactors involved.

Steven and Yuri are the first people whom I have met in Japan who have been openly really concerned about the impact that the fallout will have, as well as understanding ways that they can ensure a minimum of exposure to the radiation, especially for Juli. Steven has been advocating on other environmental issues in Japan in recent years, including dolphin hunting, and he already had a clear sense of the media's failure to properly cover these issues as well as the government's desire to minimise panic and the economic impact of the nuclear disaster. In the supermarket near their house, we see produce for sale from areas affected by the fallout, accompanied by a smiling photo of the Fukushima prefectural govenor and a comment assuring that all produce is good and people are doing a good thing by supporting those areas affected by the disaster. Yet Steven's Geiger counter regularly gives very high readings of radiation from produce from many of the northern prefectures in Honshu.

After breakfast each day, the family takes grounded iodine pills and apple pectin powder that has been found by some scientists to reduce the levels of radiation in the body. They avoid all produce from the affected areas in northern Honshu, including diary produce, and instead get a weekly delivery of vegetables from Yuri's parents garden west of Osaka. One evening I offered to cook dinner and bought the ingredients from the local shop. Yuri was concerned when I arrived back with mushrooms and garlic from regions further north. I had asked in the shop which prefectures the produce came from, it's written clearly in kanji, but didn't recognise the name. We pulled out the Geiger counter and the readings were fine. While many in Japan might regard such measures and level of caution as over the top, they can remember the recent scandal when primary school children in Yokohama city near Tokyo were fed beef from Fukushima that contained higher than government permitted levels of radioactive cesium.

"In the absence of strong and effective political involvement on the part of the electorate,
the governing elite had always been pretty much left to run the country as they saw fit."
Hans Brinkmann (2008) Showa Japan

Japan's docile political environment is well-known and was arguably helpful in the post-war years of sacrifice and austerity when the country sought to build a globally-important economy. In the post-Showa era however, after Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 and the bubble economy burst, the last two decades have seen the country struggle to manage the transition to a very different socio-economic and political environment. A lack of engagement on the part of the electorate, coupled with the conflict averse nature of society, may leave the country ill-equipped to dealing with issues such as the Fukushima disaster, where government attempts to maintain a business-as-usual approach, have left many people feeling frustrated yet unprepared to begin tackling the issues that need to be discussed.

Gohoku, Shikoku, Japan
Pedalled: 49,347 km

Sunday, 4 September 2011

72. Over an Alp

Leaving Matsumoto last weekend and waving goodbye to Jim and his family, who had hosted me for an evening, I stopped to fill my water bottles up at a spring in the lane behind his house, beside the local saki brewery. The night before, over a tetra-pack carton of Japan's finest (and the cheapest we could find in the Seven Eleven) I asked Jim, a twenty-two year veteran of cheap saki what the secret was. "They say it's in the water", he said, staring into his glass.

My goal for the next couple of days was to be the literal high point of the northern Japanese Alps as I climbed up and over the Norikura Skyline road, the highest pass in Japan at 2720 metres, and which is a largely car-free road for 40 kilometres over the summit of the granite batholith with only shuttle buses and taxis being allowed on the route through the Chubusangaku national park. 

Weekend traffic was surprisingly busy on the narrow route approaching the turn and the long, narrow tunnels that had been built during the Second World War were at times a little unnerving. I was relieved to reach the turn off for the small tourist settlement of Norikura village and I expected the traffic to thin out as I left the main route but as indicators came on it seemed like everyone was heading the same way and everyone had a bicycle with them too. It turned out that I had arrived along the afternoon before a famous annual bike race that would see over 4,000 cyclists race the last 20 kilometres from Norikura village (1200m) to the top of the pass. The top amateur and semi-professional cyclists were gathering from around the country to participate. Most of the guys I spoke to initially assumed I was some sort of comedy entry. When they realised I had no intention of paying 8000 yen to climb a hill and come paddy-last they explained that the road would be closed for most of the following morning for the race but I could pitch the tent up in one of the fields where competitors were parking and pitching their tents or preparing their bikes for the race the next day.

The following morning I watched the riders set off at intervals in groups of several hundred up the rain-soaked road. As the sun came out and dried the road and the tent I packed up and decided to see if I could pedal up behind the last group rather than wait another few hours until the route opened again officially. I was sure I would draw the wrath of the normally gracious baton-waving traffic controllers but a smile and a look of sympathy at the martyr who they seemed to assume was just a very late entry and off I went. Three hours later (not including rest stops) I crested the summit, having had all 4000 entrants pass me on their  descent to the village, any signs of the mornings event were packed up and long gone. Someone told me the king of the hill had managed to achieve victory in just over 55 minutes. 

Mixing with the young and ancient who had bussed it up to come to climb one of the surrounding peaks, I put a fleece on for the first and only time in August and left Rocinante by the bus stop as I joined some recent arrivals and plodded up to the nearby peak of Maou-dake. Back on the bike and I descended the 60 kilometres to the historical centre of Takayama in the late afternoon, stopping just once outside a shrine in a picturesque village where the old lady that I was sharing the bench with, shuffled into the nearby shop to return with a bottle of Pocari Sweat, Japan's favourite sports drink. I continued on to Takayama and made my way to the local park just as the rain started and found a covered bench where I planned to spend the night. An hour later a group of eight university students cycling from Osaka up to Niigata arrived along with headlights flashing, as surprised to see me as I was them and we shared the space for the night, swatting blindly about for mosquitos as we fell asleep.

Osaka, Japan
Trip distance: 49,033 km