Category Archives: Japan

Short getaway to Hokkaido

The northernmost islands of Japan are on similar latitudes with Rome, Marseilles, and New Hampshire.  But they are COLD and frozen!  Hokkaido is Japan’s second largest but has only 4% of the population.  It does have snow, forests, salmon, brown bears and other amazing wildlife.  I got the chance to visit the eastern part to see the legendary Red-crowned crane (Grus japonicus) – Tancho tsuru in Japanese.  In the early 20th Century they were thought to be extinct in Japan until a group of 20 individuals were discovered in a wetland in eastern Hokkaido.  Now the global population is up to 2000 and have strong protection in Japan where their habitat is increasingly protected and local farmers have taken to feeding them in their snowy wintering grounds.  The two day trip was short but full of birds – besides the cranes there were Stellar’s sea eagles (Haliaeetus pelagicus), White-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), Eurasian jays, Chinese nuthatches, woodpeckers, lots of tits, and a couple of Hen harriers (Circus spilonitus)  – plus a fox and lots of Sika deer (Cervus nippon)!  And snow and cold!

I also had a fun companion and partner on the trip – and personal chauffeur.  She did a great job driving on the snowy roads!

With some short videos!

Dancing cranes!

Landing cranes!

 

Some of the landscapes were stunning!

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Frozen Lake Akkeshi

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And my amazing chauffeur got to have some fun too.  🙂

Kyoto winter!

Last winter I chickened out and got out of Kyoto a few times with stops in the USA, Cairo, and Malaysia.  This winter, I am being brave and staying here the whole winter.  It will be my first complete winter in years and years!

All of my apartment windows are opaque, so I don’t see the weather until I open the door to check.  This morning I got a nice surprise and a fun ride to the lab. Yay for snow!

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Autumn

Autumn is, without a doubt, my favorite season.  I love the crisp air, the smell of the leaves as they start to decompose on the ground, and the deep sense of nostalgia that it brings every year.  During my time in Malaysia, it was Autumn that I missed deeply.  The seasons in Malaysia followed the monsoons – wet and wetter.  They grew comfortable but never sparked the feelings that I have during the Autumn.  Kyoto is stunning during this time of year.  I am grateful to get the opportunity to be here.

 

Hanase hiking

Monday 11 October was Sports Day in Japan and my neighbour, Yoko, organised a short hike in the mountains north of Kyoto.    We took the bus up there and hiked for a few hours.  The trail ended at a nice little forest center with BBQ pits and hammocks along the river.  The hike wasn’t particularly strenuous but very beautiful.  I was hoping to see some big wildlife but we saw lots of little wildlife!

Wildlife!

At some points the trail got narrow and steep.

And it was a fun group!

Spider man! スパイダーマン!

This is the first post for a long time.  Sorry for the absence.  I am progressing on my studies… slowly.  I have applied for some jobs recently but not getting many nibbles, so keep casting.   During the last trip to Sabah, I got a great deal on a camera that can get some close up shots.  The great Kyoto autumn weather has allowed for a few photo sessions lately.  Here are some spiders and other critters from campus.

First milestone. 143 more.

I set myself a target last week to transcribe all the interviews from Kota Kinabalu.  There were about 15 and it was a total of about 13 hours of recordings.  That equated to 26 hours of transcription.  Yikes.  And, I am still not sure if it is quality data or not.  I will find out later.  But, I figured I deserved a reward for that first, small milestone.  And it just so happened that my helpful Yahoo Weather App was predicting 3 days of clear skies and temperatures nearing 20°C. So I planned a cycle trip around Japan’s largest lake – Biwako.

My trip around Biwako: Red - first day. Blue - Second day morning. Yellow - Second day ferried in a truck. Green - Second day afternoon. Blank - My sports tracking app won't export the final day. :( I hope I can update it soon.

My trip around Biwako:
Red – first day.
Blue – Second day morning.
Yellow – Second day ferried in a truck.
Green – Second day afternoon.
Blank – My sports tracking app won’t export the final day. 😦 I hope I can update it soon.

The route for the 3rd and final day of the trip.

The route for the 3rd and final day of the trip.

A trip around Biwako can be 210 km, with a few extra added to get from Kyoto to the edge of the lake.  In all it was 230 km (185 miles). It would be an easy trip of three 75 km days.  What a treat!  I also wanted to test my hammock in cooler weather and practice with some camp cooking in cooler weather.  This would also be a training ride for longer trips in the future.  As a bonus, I wanted to see some of the ducks and waterbirds on Biwako.

I spent Saturday in the lab finishing up the last of the KK interviews and tuning up my bike. I worked on the brakes and the chain to make sure all the parts were clean, well oiled and tight.  It was fun to get to know the brakes a bit more as I had not really worked on this style of brake before.

Sunday morning was cooler and cloudier than I expected. I had a nice small breakfast and set off at about 8:30 am.  I had two full panniers with food, clothes, and my hammock.  I also had my binoculars and nice new camera.

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It didn’t take long to get to the lake.  This portion was retracing my steps from the end of my Obama trip last summer so it was pretty familiar.

By 4 pm I was heading into Takashima.  Last year, I had passed this same route on the way back from Obama last year and had spotted some good places for camping.  Earlier in the day I cooked some noodles for my lunch and noticed that the stove gas was low and not hot enough to boil the water.  This presented some issues for making my dinner.  A quick detour to the outskirts of Takashima didn’t result in a new gas canister so I got some supplies from a convenience store for a cold dinner and headed back to the lake to make camp.

After making camp and having a bite to eat, I climbed into the hammock just after sunset.  It was cold before I got in and just got colder as the night progressed.  By midnight I had made several forays to my panniers to get more clothes.  Eventually I was wearing a knit hat, a knit neck warmer, 3 thermal shirts, a fleece vest, a fleece jacket, 2 pairs of thermal pants, 3 pairs of socks and my sleeping back. But I was lacking an underpad in the hammock and my back was always freezing while my front was too warm.  It was a miserable night.  When the sun came up, I managed to coax a hot coffee out of my stove and had a cold breakfast.

Monday morning started with a thick fog and heavy clouds.  I was afraid of rain.  When I managed to check my weather app again, it predicted clearing skies by mid-morning so I made the decision to continue with the trip but with the idea of getting a hotel for the second night.  Before spending another cold night in the hammock I need to devise a better under-insulation system.

My research had me excited about the north end of the lake.  It was supposed to be coastal roads skirting steep mountains and it did not disappoint.  That road was nearly empty of traffic, full of birds and was blissful.  I was even looking forward to the climb at the end which would take me soaring to 400 m above the lake along a parkway to clear the last ridge.

I reached the last town before the anticipated climb at around 10 am.  The sun was out and I felt that I deserved a break and a snack before the climb.  My pastry was delicious and I didn’t even mind that the vending machine stole my money.  Then I looked at the road leading up to the parkway and saw this…..

 

Locked gate.  No walking. No biking.  No nothing. Closed.

Locked gate. No walking. No biking. No nothing. Closed.

So I had to backtrack 7 km to the previous town and cross on the big road and through a big tunnel.  I wasn’t thrilled but the coastal road was nice to ride again.  Fortunately the inland route had a smooth, wide foot/bike path beside and the climb was not too bad.  Even the 850 m tunnel had a small walkway and I walked my bike through the tunnel.  That brought me to a another small town before having a choice to stay on the main road or take a smaller coastal road around the hill.  I was planning on the smaller coastal road, of course.  When I finally reached the turn off, it was full of construction equipment and the tunnel was closed.  That diverted all the main-road traffic to my idyllic coastal road.  How exciting to share a small road with all those big trucks.  Not.  That ended with yet another small tunnel and then I got to get back onto paddy field roads!  Without the cars and big trucks!!

I love the paddy field roads.  They are usually perfectly straight with long lines of sight and the occasional charming, small town breaking up the monotony.  These were no different.  Until the paved road turned to gravel.  No problem.  I just kept going… tracking the main road in the distance as I worked my way back to the lake.  At one point I noticed something rather anomalous for Japan…. a stray dog in one of the fields. Until I approached closer and it was a fox!  And it let me get some photos.  I took off my headphones and got closer and closer.  So cool!

Kitsune!

Kitsune!

And as I continued on, this time without the music that I had been indulging in (only one headphone. always. for safety sake), I heard that dreaded metallic clicking from the back wheel.  Broken spoke.

My cool touring bike has a special spot for keeping extra spokes.  This was the second to break this year, but I had a shop repair the previous one.  This one I had to try on my own.  So I sat down on the side of the road and pulled off all my gear, upended the bike, removed the back wheel, tire and tube and the broken spoke.  Then…. how to slip in the new one.  The empty hole on the hub was on the drive-side which meant that the read gears were blocking the hub.  I had to pull off the cassette to fix the spoke!  And the cassette removal tools were all at home.  😦

As a farmer walked past with his power tiller I said hello and asked in my best Japanese (which is AWFUL) where the closest bike shop was.  He gave me the dreaded X-arms which indicated that there was no bike shop around.  I check my maps.  The closest town was at least 10 km away.  It was going to be a long walk.  I passed the farmer in his field and he was with his wife, who had passed me on her bike earlier.

Oto-san preparing to plant potatoes.

Oto-san preparing to plant potatoes.

His wife called out to me in Japanese.  I stopped and tried to talk to her.  She seemed concerned about what I was doing but kept speaking very fast Japanese.  Eventually she held up her hands in steering wheel pose and said “Turukku,” truck.  I understood.  They were offering to take me to town!!! With all the requisite Japanese humility and gratitude I could muster, I gratefully accepted.

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Oto-san drove me to the closest shop but it specialized in Japanese town bikes and did not have tool needed to pull the cassette. Oto-san was generous enough to take me to another shop about 20 minutes away.  We made small chit chat in the car, but with my rudimentary Japanese it wasn’t much.

When we reached the new shop, the owner came out and looked at the situation. He was gruff and kept going on about something.  Not wanting to keep Oto-san from his potato planting, I just started unloading my things from his truck.  The shop keeper took my bike inside while I said my farewells to Oto-san and got his phone number and address.

image4By the time I got into the shop, the rear wheel was off and the shop keeper was working on getting the cassette off.  He had all tools.  I got down and started to help and he warmed up.  Then his wife brought me a cup of coffee!  The new spoke went on without a problem and the shop keeper cleaned my chain, adjusted the brakes and double checked everything!  Then he sat down and chatted with me for a while.  When I asked how much, he told me (in Japanese, so I’m kind of guessing here) that it was his gift to me.  I insisted and he let me give him a token amount.  So nice!

I wanted to stay and chat some more but I had to make it to Hikone and I was worried about finding a warm place to sleep, so I bade my farewells and headed back onto the road.  The rest of the day was spent just focusing on making it to Hikone before dark.  I got there just as the sun was setting and found the first reasonable business hotel.  After a hot, hot shower I headed down for dinner and found a Big Boy for a big hamburger and endless salad bar – perfect.  That led to a warm night’s sleep.

On Monday I got up at 6 and was out by 7.  I need to get back to Kyoto in time to have a shower and go teach an English class by 5:30 so I wanted to make good time.  The day started cloudy and cool but eventually the sun came out and was lovely.  I visited the historic Hikone Castle and then stayed by the lake all day.

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Here are some of the roads I rode along during the trip…. some quite and lined with trees or bordering the lake.  Some bike paths along roads.  Some tunnels.  Some industrial.  Quite a mix.  Its Japan.

 

 

I made it back to Kyoto around 2 pm, treated myself to an ice cream, a hot bath and headed off to my English lesson with time to spare and take a few pictures with a spectacular blossoming plum tree.

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A break from transcription

My PhD has started a new phase.  I am now preparing my data for analysis.  The first step is to transcribe the 39-plus hours of interviews.  I am using a software called Transcriva.  The process is slow and tedious but its nice to make tangible progress.  Several websites mention that it can take 4 to 7 hours to transcribe each hour of interview data.  Mine are taking about 3 hours per hour of interview.  My great field-assistant, Chai Ming, is helping with the Chinese and Malay interviews.

So, I took a break on Sunday and went for my yoga class (taught by my neighbor, Yoko) and then a hike up Kyoto’s second-highest peak, Mt Atago.  Yoko’s boyfriend, Dan, wanted to visit an abandoned cable car station at the top of Mt Atago, near the much-more-famous shrine, also at the top.

Yoga was from 10:30 to 11:30, then I had a nice lunch with Yoko and Dan before we rushed to catch the bus to get to the trail head.  It was a bit of a late start so we packed some extra warm clothes, snacks, and flashlights and head lamps, just in case.  The bus got us to the trail-head just after 2 pm and we started right up the hill at a blistering pace.  It is about a 4 km walk with an approximate 600 m vertical climb.  Both of us have climbed to the shrine before, but not to the cable car station.  We had to be quick and we weren’t sure where the old cable car was so we wanted time to be able to find it.

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This is the yoga space. Its a loft above a cafe. We can enjoy the smells of the cafe cooking while trying to focus on the activity!

But…… I had my binoculars and there were birds.  So it went a bit slow at times.  At the very start of the trail there was a bird wave and we saw some pretty common birds but one stood out and I managed to identify it later as a Siberian ruby throat – (update 13 March.  It wasn’t Siberian rubythroat.  It was Red-breasted flycatcher.  Not quite as rare but still very cool)  a lifer for the start of the hike.  Yeah!  We also saw a woodpecker that I may have seen before, but am not sure.

There were lots of climbers coming down and we got overtaken by one guy who was running up (he passed us coming down later on).  As we neared the top it was getting close to 5 pm.  Our return bus was at 6:38, so figured that we needed to turn around near 5.

When we were nearly at the top a group of three young men were coming down and Dan (who speaks better Japanese than me but still not a lot) stopped to ask them if they knew where to find the cable car.  Their English was not great but they indicated that they were looking for the same thing but they didn’t seem to be able to tell us.  We gave up and went up to the top of the shrine and made ourselves a quick cup of tea and headed back down…. at 5:15 pm.  We needed to hurry.

These guys were friendly but couldn't tell us where the ruin was.

These guys were friendly but couldn’t tell us where the ruin was.

As we went back down the trail we noticed something on the ground.  An arrow pointing to a small side trail.  And above it, written with cedar leaves was the word – RUIN!  Dan spotted the word.  I completely missed it.  The guys had left us a message.

The sign! Clever guys!

The sign! Clever guys! Can you see “ruin” just above the arrow?

Despite the lateness (and some pain I was having in my hip from yoga and the climb) we rushed down the side trail to see if we could find it.  Dan was faster and ran ahead…. and there it was!  The abandoned building!  What a find!

We spent a few minutes looking around.  Dan wondered if we should go straight down the old cable car route but we decided it was best to take the trail.  We rushed back to the trail.  Now 5:30ish.  We had an hour to get down and catch the bus.  By then my hip was hurting.  Dan was faster than me but we scurried down the trail.  At 6:15 it was dark and the head lamps came out.  We continued to scurry.  Dan phoned Yoko and found out that there was another bus at 7:00 but it would only get us to the nearest town and not all the way into Kyoto.  We would need to find another transport back in – either bus or train.

The trail down... it got much, much darker!

The trail down… it got much, much darker!

At 6:30 we hit pavement at the bottom of the valley and the road.  Dan jogged back up the little hill to the bus stop.  My hip was burning and I tried to go as fast as I could.  When I reached the bus stop, Dan was there and we had missed the bus by 5 minutes.  Boo!  So we waited for the 7 pm bus.  And reveled in the rush of having gone up and down so fast and the wonder that the guys had left us that cool message.

And then out of the darkness the 3 guys came up the hill!  They had gone down the cable car route!  We were so happy to meet them.  We showed them pictures of their trail sign and the building.  They were all law students at Osaka City University and one Spring Break.  We all caught the same bus and had a nice chat on the way.

We met up with the guys who helped us find the ruin! Thanks guys! (photo: Dan Marsh)

We met up with the guys who helped us find the ruin! Thanks guys! (photo: Dan Marsh)

Dan and I went back to get our bikes and stopped for some yakitori and a couple of beers.  I didn’t get any transcriptions done on that Sunday but it was memorable and fun.  I doubled up on the transcriptions on Monday.

First solo cycle trip

I have caught the cycle touring bug.

But there is still lots to learn and experience.  Last weekend, I set off for my first, short, solo cycle tour.  The plan was to leave Kyoto Friday afternoon, cycle to the norther coast and back on Sunday.

This trip had several purposes, other than to just get away for a bit.  I wanted to test my new bike and panniers under a loaded condition.  I also wanted to see how it would be to camp in Japanese forests.

The trip took 2.5 days.  Friday evening after school, Nate and I rode up to Ohara.  Nate had to get back to Kyoto so I rode on for a while until I got to my targeted campsite.  There was a big climb and a tunnel but I found my target place with no problem.  There was a nice stream and a concrete structure half-way up the hill to sit on.

Friday evening. Kyoto to first campsite.

Friday evening. Kyoto to first campsite.

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The night was very calm.  No cars.  I heard some animals, but nothing came to close. In the morning, I made a nice coffee. Ate my bread. Packed up and hit the road to Obama.

The road followed a nice mountain valley.  Sometimes I could cross from the main road and ride on the opposite side of the river without traffic.  The small farm towns were lovely and there were loads of guys fishing in the river.

There was a pretty big climb to cross the continental divide and start the descent into Obama.  My new bike does not have the same low gears that the Gary Fisher had.  May need to swap out to some lower gears to climb better.  My skinny legs don’t play that game!  In some places, the road got narrow and the trucks got big.  At times, it kind of sucked.  At other times, it was magnificent.

The route into Obama.

The route into Obama.

I tried to get off the main road and follow a smaller parallel road to Obama but ended up in a side valley.  Rather than go back, I kept going to the coast and was rewarded with some great views of little coves and the rugged coastline.  There were three tunnels but they all had nice, wide sidewalks. One even had a railing!

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When I finally reached Obama, I was tired, hungry and smelly.  I set off looking for a public bath but only found a foot bath.  After riding around, searching some more, and asking at a convenience store and at the town visitor information, I found out that the sento was right next to the place with the foot bath!  Ha ha.  So I paid my money and had a lovely shower and a soak in a hot bath of medicated pink water.  They had a nice little cafe and I had a bowl of tempura and rice and charged my phone.

The ride back over the hills on Sunday was on my mind and I still had some time, so I rode out of Obama, back up the hill to get a head start on Sunday.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 10.56.18 AMI managed 20 km out of town and found a quiet little forest road with a stream to hang my hammock.

DSCF7474 DSCF7475-001Sunday morning I woke up to a light sprinkle.  I managed a quick breakfast and packed up in the rain and set off for the climb.  It wasn’t as bad as I expected but it rained and rained and rained all the way over the hill and down to Biwa Lake. I rode along the lake for a few hours until I came across a nice little hut by the lake and stopped to make tea and have a snack.

The rain stopped but the clouds stayed for the last push along the lake shore to Otsu town.  I stopped for a traditional Otsu hotdog (or 2) before crossing the last 2 hills back into Kyoto.  The whole trip was 220 km and I rode farther than expected on Saturday and Sunday.  My shoulders hurt at the end but learned some good lessons about myself, the bike and the camping.

Sunday's ride in the rain. Over the hills, to the lake and along the lake shore.

Sunday’s ride in the rain. Over the hills, to the lake and along the lake shore.

Can’t wait for the next trip!

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Signs, signs, signs

I try not to make a big deal out of typos and misspellings when people write English.  But that doesn’t mean that some of the signs don’t make me smile.  These three deserve special mention.  One shop sign and two apartment building names:

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I kept my ass port to myself.

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Post Coitus. Would Sheldon live here?

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Classy font. Classy name. Maison de LIbido.