Saturday, 26 July 2014


5 days after entering Japan and so many things happened, I am compelled to write my first post.  I expected Japan to amaze me, but I wasn’t expected to be blown out of my boots!
I left Yuzhno Sakhalinsk very early morning because my agent (Mr. Valeriy, an excellent gentleman that prepares everything for you, both on the Russian side and on the Japan side; I have his info for the interested travelers through that region) in Korsakov said I should be at the ferry before 8.  There was a peaceful feeling to my last ride in Russia, the 42 km to Korsakov... I had this deep sense of satisfaction that I made it alive through the largest country on the planet and I had memories that will stay with me forever.  I went slowly, enjoying the last sites of the Island and reflecting on my journey. 
I arrived at the ferry and sure enough, Mr. Valeriy was already there, waiting for me, with all my papers on hand.  We went through Russian customs without a hitch and I headed towards the Heartland Ferry dock.  As I entered the belly of the ship, 4 impeccably dressed Japanese men welcomed me, showed me where to park (I was the only vehicle on board, all the passengers were on foot and mostly Russians going to Japan).  As I parked, a young man brought a small piece of carpet and set it under my footrest so I don’t scratch the deck! I thought:” What in the world is this?”  Scratching the deck? 
Then the four men brought a pressure washer, all sorts of brushes and soap and started to scrub my bike.  It was so clean I could have licked it.  All the Siberian dust and mud and bugs disappeared at once.  A new horizon was ahead, with an entirely different mindset.
I climbed upstairs where I was greeted again (with a bow, something I would see a thousand times a day in Japan) and after taking my dirty boots off (which were immediately washed by one of the crew) I was shown to my place; there were no seats or benches on the ferry (except in the lobby) and everyone is sitting on the floor, without shoes.  I was given a tray with my lunch and the ferry departed.  I went outside to look for the last time to the Russian shore.  It was hard to believe that I was leaving this country on the Pacific side, after crossing almost 11.000 km from the Baltic side at Varna, Estonia, just 6 weeks ago!  I had mixed feelings about this all experience, but as I turned south, I realized that beyond those clouds lies a new adventure, one that I dreamed of and planned for a long time.  Japan was basically my destination from the beginning; the bike was built here and now it was returning to her homeland, this time not in a crate, but by road.  From here on, is basically considered the return to Africa.
I fell asleep on the ferry for a couple of hours and when I woke up and went outside again, the sun was shining and on the port (left) side of the ship I saw the first sight of Japan; I trembled as I took my camera out... The high rises of the volcanic mountains were peaking through the haze and massive amounts of Wind generators were lining the tops.  Wakkanai was ahead. 
We pulled in Wakkanai exactly 5 hours after departure from Sakhalin, a far cry from the 20 hours we did on the Vanino ferry (which operates without a schedule).  I was welcomed by another agent at the door and invited to wait in an office.  Few minutes later, an Immigration officer came with the agent, all the papers for the bike stamped and the insurance issued, plus my visa for 90 days for Japan.  The Immigration officer than bowed and said: “John San, welcome to Japan!”  I was finally here!
I rode few minutes up to the mountain and camped that night in the Wakkanai park, a spectacular place, above the city, full of bikers and campers from all over Japan.  I set my tent and then I was looking to see where to pay for my night’s stay.  Some people saw me and told me: “It is free, you don’t have to pay for camping here”.  I couldn’t believe my ears, but this would be the beginning of a series of events that shocked me in Japan so far.
I cooked dinner (I still had some food from Estonia and Russian with me) and after I finished eating, I see an older gentleman approaching.  He came and sat next to me and served me Sake, just to say Hello (even though he didn’t speak English) and make me feel welcome.
At 4 in the morning as the sun was rising (being 2 hours back from Russia, the day starts really early here) I had to get up and pack for my first ride South.  All the campers were up too, going for the morning Yoga or jog.  I now understand why these people live so long and look so young: they go to bed at 9, wake up at 4, exercise and take time to enjoy their lives.
I headed South towards Haboro and I felt rejuvenated in the morning coolness, riding through the small roads of the fishing villages (I always avoid highways) and filming the spectacular landscapes around me.  I was in paradise: the roads are impeccable, the people welcoming and respectful, the food, out of this world.  I stop for coffee and breakfast at a little store on the way and the attendant there sees my foreign plates and comes out with a bottle of Iced tea and cookies and offered them to me.  “A gift”, he says.  I am speechless!
I pulled in for gas and 3 people run out of the gas station and when they find out I come all the way from Africa, they bow and shake my hand in respect.  As they fill up, they set a small towel around my gas tank so they don’t spill on it.  I keep thinking: “Who does this?” 
I pass Haboro, heading towards Sapporo, an amazing city, but already so hot, I couldn’t breathe inside my helmet.  41 degrees, my thermometer shows... I desperately get out of the city and find a camping side on the mountain: Arten Campground.  Set among the trees of the forest, it looks like a typical Japanese landscape: manicured and quaint.  At 4 in the morning, the mist from the mountain gently flows through the trees, creating a Zen atmosphere.  I am taking photos and smiling in the same time... I have a surreal experience.
I ride to the beautiful city of Hakodate, take the ferry to Aomori and enter the South Island.  Aomori is splendid, the city is so clean and so quiet you can actually hear the birds singing in downtown.  These people never honk their horns, never shout and never show you the finger.  They walk quietly about their business and everyone keeps to themselves.  There is no unnecessary noise.
In the morning as I head Southwest towards Sakata, I can feel the heat building up.  Sakata area is very humid and I am sweating even though it is only 7 in the morning.  The mountain ride is breathtaking, with low mountains lined with pines and large rice fields in the valleys.  Flowers are planted everywhere, even on the highway.  I pass by a spotless lake, with a red tower in the middle and I have to stop, just to take in the sights and the silence.  This country touches me to the core of my being... the peace, safety, standard of life (highest in the world, I have no doubt) and landscapes are just a few factors that can change my perspective on life here.
I stop to one of the many rest areas (these are huge places with everything you can think of, from markets to pharmacies) and buy an ice cream.  As I enjoy sitting in the shade, a little girl runs to me with 4 cereal bars and a bottle of Iced tea, saying in a cute voice: “Gift” and then she runs back to her parents.  I am flabbergasted again and asked the parents “why is everyone so nice to me?”  “It is our custom to welcome weary travelers from faraway places.”  And as they say that, they bow again. 
5 days into Japan and I feel I am on a different planet... I cannot but think that they are and should be the standard by which the whole world should be judged.  Japan sets a bar of civilization level that should be adopted by the rest of the world.  A sign of true civilization, the way I see it, is when all the citizens of a country enjoy the same standard of life and quality across the society’s areas.  Whether you have money or not, you can still eat at cheaper restaurants where the quality is the same.  Your house, small or not, has the same modern amenities as anyone else.  You car, your healthcare, the infrastructure will be the same whether you are rich or poor.  Most of the countries I have lived in or visited in the last 25 years are basically catering to the rich: if you want a very good meal you will pay more in a fancier restaurant (otherwise food poisoning is on the menu), you want a nice place to live, you have to pay more, a better hospital care, you pay more.  Basically, the underlining message is: “you’re poor, you’re screwed”.  Japan does everything the other way: food is amazing everywhere, whether you pay 5 dollars or 200.  The cleanliness, the technology and the infrastructure is available for everyone, rich or poor.  Of course, if you have more money, you have a better house or car, but even the small houses and cars and restaurants are of the highest standard here. You also get the same treatment and respect, whether you are rich or poor, which is very rare almost anywhere else I have been before.
I want to thank the Yamaha people in Sakata, where I stopped to ask for directions to a camp and who helped me find accommodation and even drove in front of me to find the place.  Your generosity is greatly appreciated.
Lastly, the respectful attitude of all the people I met, the politeness and the peaceful approach these people have to everything makes this country what it is today, a jewel of our planet.  Their determination to not only survive but thrive, in spite of typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, plus a couple of nuclear bombings, is remarkable, to say the least.  
The Japanese have everything they want and no one is trying to rip you off (I get free tea, sake, cookies, food, someone even filled my tank free, etc).  I remember paying 4 Euro on the Italian highway for a cup of tea, just because they can, or 6 Euro a cup of coffee in Norway or 1 Euro for 1 egg at the grocery store, just because it’s Norway. 
I have more than 3 weeks to explore this country on my own 2 wheels and I am already walking on clouds, because I have reached the best country on the planet (I understand that different people have different experiences and opinions about Japan, but this is my experience so far here).
And this, my friends, is my 2 cents worth of reflection after 5 days in Japan.
Photos below.

Leaving Korsakov on a grey morning

 The Hearland Ferry

 My lunch
 First sight of Japan
 Camp in Wakkanai Park
 Wakkanai from the top of the mountain
 Leaving Wakkanai for the South

 This little girl just wanted a photo on my bike; at one of the many rest areas
 Summer camping for these children.  I camped in the same place.  They were very exciting to see this giant foreigner coming by bike.

 Morning mist at Asten Campground: 4:30 am

 Japanese love entertainment and you see special places like these everywhere
 The Pacific
 Amazing little restaurant where I had my first lunch: Rice, teriyaki chicken, veggies and drink: 5 dollars

 Zen Lake on the way South

 Rest area markets

 Some gas stations have no usual pumps: the hose hangs from the ceiling and they fill up from above. 
 One of the many Temples and Shrines I have seen here

 Beautiful Aomori

 My dinner in Aomori: the lady did not speak any English and just brought me this amazing Udon noodle soup; free of charge!  So much for expensive Japan!
 Sakata in the evening