This year’s Tour de Japan started on the 31st July, with four competitors meeting at the starting line in Tokyo to form our team: Jon, Kevin, Carlos and I. The course was set…22 days, 9 stages and a grand tour of Japan…
Stage 1: Tokyo, Flat Stage
Some casual sightseeing and a much anticipated day at Disneyland were the only challenges at this stage, providing an steady pace for the team for the start of the tour.
Ueno Park, Imperial Palace, Meiji Shrine and Harajuku were all visited so that our ‘Tokyo Virgin’ team member Jon could experience it all. The team was pleasantly surprised to discover we had also inadvertently timed our stay in Asakusa to coincide with the Samba Matsuri, complete with fireworks just metres from our hostel.
When not embracing the big sights of Tokyo and wonders of Disneyland, the team found themselves locked in battle at the hostel…in the form of scrabble. While other tourist teams were out on the town, our determined group playing many a game in a bid to strengthen our minds as well as our bodies for the big race.
Despite all the fun in Tokyo, there was an early withdrawal from the race. Our team suffered a blow with Jon throwing in the towel a mere 3 days into the race. Unable to keep up with the peloton, the English lad bowed out of the race while Kevin, Carlos and I neared the second stage, and the most difficult, Mt Fuji…
Stage 2: Mt Fuji, Mountain Stage
This mountain stage…or as I like to call it the ‘Death Stage’ almost saw the end of the Tour for the remaining 3 team members. Blissfully ignorant and full of excitement, our Tour de Japan team boarded a bus from Tokyo to the Kawaguchi 5th Station in preparation for a night climb of Japan’s most famous natural landmark, Mt Fuji.
This was by far the most difficult stage the team faced in the tour…and possibly our lives! The 5 hour race to the top was battled out with tour groups, seasoned climbers and of course other foreign travellers like ourselves. Success was ours though and despite Kevin falling victim to altitude sickness a few hundred meters before the summit we arrived before all but a handful of other climbers.
Our elation was short lived as we realised this now meant a 3 hour wait at the summit for sunrise in freezing conditions…with Kevin in a virtually comatose state. Never were 3 people more happy to see the first rays of light on the horizon as we were that morning.
Sadly Kevin wasn’t the only one to fall victim to the harsh conditions during this mountain stage. I sustained a knee injury on the 3.5 hour descent which I then had to nurse for the rest of the tour…and which still plagues me now.
Many hours after sunrise we made it back to Tokyo and after a much needed soak at an onsen we boarded a night bus to Okayama and the next stage of the Tour.
Stage 3: Okayama, Rest Stage
This was supposedly a rest stage on the Tour after the horrors and lack of sleep incurred during the Mt Fuji mountain stage. Someone forgot to tell this to our fearless leader Kevin (AKA Dad) who had us scheduled in to do an entire day of cycling around the Kibi Plains, just outside of Okayama.
Granted he did give the team one day of reprieve where we took in Okayama-jo (Crow Castle) and the famous Korakuen (Park), but everyone knows that pain sets in on the second day. The day we spent 8 hours on the saddle of a hire bike cycling around in 35 degree heat. I now have a new found respect for competitors in the real Tour, how do they do it?!
Unlike the name implies, the Kibi Plains were not entirely flat and ‘Dad’ made sure we climbed every hill and burial mound in sight. The one saving grace that we were eternally grateful for was the comfort of our ryokan (Japanese style) hotel room for the short duration of our time in Okayama. This alone did allow for some actual rest during this stage.
Stage 4: Hiroshima/Miyajima, Water Stage
While this stage was not taxing on our team physically, it took its toll mentally and emotionally. A sombre mood descended on the Tour de Japan team as we neared Hiroshima, knowing full well the devastating history of the city.
Our team spent the day learning more about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by exploring the Peace Memorial Park and surrounding area which was the hypocentre of the blast. The museum offered comprehensive and disturbing accounts of those effected by the A-bomb and left me feeling ashamed to be a part of the human race.
Despite all this, it was heartening to see how the people of Hiroshima have rebuilt their city and tried to move on from that horrendous day in their history. After the sad day in Hiroshima, our team retired to the seaside town of Miyajimaguchi in preparation for our exploration of Miyajima Island the next day.
Miyajima was spectacular and a welcome change of scenery for our team. In the blistering heat of summer the sight of water was refreshing and the giant Floating Torii made it all the better. The glorious orange beacon did not disappoint and despite Carlos having to stave off swarms of killer tick-deer, we had a wonderful day seeing all the other sights on the island too.
Stage 5: Kyoto, Flat Stage
It needs to be noted here that on our way from Miyajima to Kyoto, the Tour de Japan team took a pit stop in Himeji. Sadly this was one of the most disappointing blows the team took on the Tour…a visit to Himeji Castle. Despite prior psychological preparation for what we were to witness, Kevin and I were still devastated to find the castle covered in scaffolding. Under renovation until 2015, it’s fair to say that our team might sadly not see the castle in all it’s glory again.
Kyoto proved to be an opportunity for our Team to take a travelling breather. Our team was going to split at the next stage for individual time trials and we had 5 days in Kyoto all told, so we took to a casual pace. It was also in Kyoto that I encountered my one break in the weather too…the only day of rain over the entire course of the 22 day race…a nice change from the constant heat and humidity.
Kevin, Carlos and I indulged in seeing two of Kyoto’s popular attractions: Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and Fushimi Inari shrine. The former was rather unimpressive as it was never completed and so despite its name, isn’t actually silver. It’s more famous cousin, Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion, which I saw with my parents a week later) is far more majestic as it actually lives up to its name. Fushimi Inari shrine was amazing though and our peloton enjoyed an afternoon navigating through the maze of orange torii on it’s grounds.
There was a clear highlight to Stage 5 of the Tour though: geisha spotting in Gion. Our Tour de Japan team went into Gion with low expectations…knowing we were stalking a rare creature. I had actually forgotten our reason for going to the area when there in front of me appeared one of the illusive treasures! A Maiko (apprentice geisha) in all her white faced, red collared glory was shuffling quietly along the lane way with everyone clearing a path for her like she was royalty. She was the perfectly demure and elegant picture of a geisha that I had expected…we had seen one of Japan’s ‘unicorns’. If that wasn’t enough about 10 minutes later we saw yet another…!
Stage 6: Osaka, Individual Time Trial
There is no ‘I’ in team, but there are the letters ‘M’ and ‘E’ and it was during Stage 6 I took some ‘me’ time. Leaving our peloton I headed off to Osaka while Kevin and Carlos stayed on in Kyoto for a few more days.
This individual time trial was a chance for me to get in touch with my inner ‘archinerd’ and fulfil one of my lifelong dreams; to do a pilgrimage to see the architecture of Tadao Ando. Sadly the Renovation Gods were out to beat me in this leg of the Tour so I sadly missed out on seeing my favourite of his buildings…The Church of Light. That said I still managed to see the Sayamaike and Chikatsu Asuka Historical Museums designed by the great man, thus achieving a personal best time for the stage.
Kevin decided to shun our team’s uniform (i.e. whatever we most felt comfortable in) and spend the day in Nara kitted out in Japanese style…a Jimbei (a shorts version of a yukata) and geta (wooden thongs). Kevin was in his element but it was rather tortuous for Carlos and I, as his fellow team members…we had to deal with the clip clopping all day and the looks from the locals as if to say ‘why are you with crazy?’!
Kevin’s outfit aside, I can happily report that this stage saw me complete yet another personal goal…to secure my spot for enlightenment (again). In Todaiji’s Diabutsuden, there is a column with a hole in it said to be the same size as Buddha’s nostril. If you can climb through the hole, then it is said you will reach enlightenment. I managed to squeeze through when I was 16 and with the encouraging cries of ‘gambare (do your best!)’ and applause from the crowd I did it again!
Stage 8: Mt Koya, Medium Mountain Stage
Unlike the Mt Fuji Stage, this was a an enjoyable journey to the top of Mt Koya via the funicular railway. This put the team in high spirits to begin with…which were further elevated when we set eyes on our overnight accommodation…
The team enjoyed a wonderful night in temple lodgings, complete with monks and morning prayers. We had a whole ‘wing’ to ourselves and lapped up every minute of it. The highlight for Kevin, Carlos and I being the vegetarian meals we received…fit for a vegetarian King! I doubt I will ever experience tofu quite like that ever again.
When our team managed to drag ourselves away from our temple lodgings, we explored Mt Koya’s Oku-no-in (cemetery), where I was in awe of the stunning Toro-do (Lantern Hall). This beautiful building houses hundreds of gold lanterns, including 2 which have been apparently burning for over 900 years. Sadly no photos were allowed and words can’t do it justice…so you will just have to go and see it yourselves.
Stage 9: Tokyo, Individual Time Trial
This was the last stage in the Tour de Japan and another individual time trial as I farewelled Kevin and Carlos before departing to Tokyo. I had 4 days in which to complete this time trial before my parents arrival in Japan.
Much like my time other individual time trial in Osaka, I used this opportunity to indulge in more design. Tadao Ando was on the list again and I sprinted straight for the International Library of Children’s Literature to see how my Japanese skills stood up to children’s books. Impressed by both the building and it’s contents I moved onto another of Ando’s gems, 21_21 Design Sight, a gallery in the heart of Roppongi, complete with an exhibition about ‘The Definition of Self’.
To round off my Tour de Japan, I detoured to Yokohama for a day to take in the sights of the port city and it’s somewhat Old-World England atmosphere. Meandering through the streets, I watched the rides at Cosmo World, did some window shopping in Akarenga Soko (red brick warehouses converted into funky stalls selling hand made goods), saw silk worms at the silk museum and visited the very international Yamashita-koen area, complete with international cemetery, school and shops stocking Tim Tams!