Big in Japan

Last month I returned to Kunming from my yearly big bicycle odyssey. For one month I explored Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

August is, supposedly, the best month to visit Hokkaido but the overarching theme of this trip was water. Wild rivers, waterfalls, pristine volcano crater lakes, steaming forests, hot springs, ocean spray, massive sea waves and precipitation in a thousand different guises. Fine drizzle, thick fog, muddy splashes, clouds, roadside puddles, showers, torrential rain for days, morning dewdrops on the grass and on my tent and a typhoon. There was also sweat and (once, briefly) tears.

Close encounters

Another theme was the joy of rediscovering solo cycling and how that smoothed the way for encounters with lovely Japanese women who generously took me in.

Funny geisha

I also see quite a few Japanese cyclists, I cycle with a Tasmanian Antarctic researcher for a couple of days and hang out with two Australian cyclists in Niseko. On one wet morning I meet a lovely Taiwanese family at a campsite and share stories about bike travel and talk geopolitics over breakfast.

One night I stay at a local biker gang campsite and have a barbecue dinner with the guys. Hokkaido is very popular with motorbikers and they always wave at cyclists, so it feels as I’m part of a gang of road warriors.

Papa-san, member of a super scary Japanese motorbike gang

Kumiko

But, getting to know some Japanese women has been the best. Kumiko, a 72 year old lady on holiday in Kushiro, takes me to a traditional festival with dancing and drumming and then a fabulous seafood barbecue. Scallops drenched in fresh butter, shrimp, potatoes… it’s delicious and great fun.

She looks and moves likes a sparrow, with quick bird-like head movements when she wants to get a point across. She only speaks a few words of English, alongside my non-existent Japanese, but we connect nonetheless.

At one point she tells me something that google translates as ‘the sakura (cherry blossom) is in bloom’. I don’t understand what she means as it’s not the season for cherry blossom watching. But no, she means my red cheeks, hot from the barbecue and the sake we have been swigging. A great girls night out.

Kumiko

Eiko

Another great encounter is with Eiko. I meet her at the end of a long and hot day (this is before the endless raining started) outside a conbini (convenience store) which are the lifeline of any cyclist in Japan.

She sees me and my bike loaded with gear and starts positively growling and squealing with delight. So positive! So amazing! Ooooh! Aaaaaah! Sugoi! I ask her if she knows a good place to camp, and she invites me to come and stay at her home.

I spend an evening with her and Benzo, her mental dog. She used to travel a lot. Diving in the Maldives, living in Australia, backpacking around the world. Until she got married to her husband and moved from Sapporo to rural Shimizu, on a flat-as-a-Dutch pancake floodplain surrounded by mountains.

She works at a check-out in a supermarket. They couldn’t conceive, drifted apart and are now in the process of getting divorced. Eiko takes me shopping to the local mall, which is the only thing to do in the small town. We have a good chat, and I’m sad to leave her behind in her depressing situation, being bored out of her skull in Shimizu. Luckily she has Benzo.

Eiko

Osanai-san of Honobono farm

My last encounter is entirely positive and uplifting. After a medium climb, I am looking for a good meal before I will find my wild camping spot for the night. Just outside a small village, not far from Lake Toya, I spot Honobono farm. It is a meticulously maintained idyll of organic farming on a traditional Hokkaido farmstead, combined with a cafe and offering yoga classes for more relaxation and a healthy lifestyle.

I relish the crunchy fresh vegetables after almost a month of living off processed conbini bento box food and snickers bars. Looking out over the flowers in the sunny garden I’m overcome with a feeling of complete peace. I ask if they are a campsite, knowing quite well they aren’t, but this is the roundabout and polite way of asking I can stay, as it offers them an easy way to say no.

Yoko says no, but 5 minutes later comes back to say that her mother has agreed to let me stay for the night. Yay! I put up my tent and after a game of volleyball with the whole family, I prepare for an early night.

But, I can’t go to sleep just yet. Grandmother Osanai-san brings more food to my tent and invites me to go to the village onsen with her. There she scrubs my back, and we enjoy a nice long soak in the simple white-tiled space. She invites me to sleep inside, afraid I’m going to be cold in the tent. They have already shared so much and I don’t want to miss out on the last night in my tent, especially as it’s not raining. I decline the gracious offer. Their farm is a traditional wooden building without a shower, and I glimpse raised tatami rooms with futons inside.

From a complete foreign stranger, I came to feel like a member of the family, without a shared language. They decided to like and trust me within minutes and let me in. At 5.30am Osanai-san calls me outside my tent: Bira-san, kohi (coffee)! She cooks me an amazing breakfast and I’m on my way, enveloped in a warm glow and with a big happy smile on my face.

Osana-i-san and husband

Going the distance

It was pretty hardcore at times, and I cycled more than I planned: an average of about 60km per day (including rest days, meaning that most days I did 75km or more, often doing big climbs, in the rain). I was only planning on cycling from New Chitose airport to the Shiretoko peninsula and back. In the end, I tack on a loop in Niseko, southwest of Sapporo, home to some spectacular volcanic lakes. I’ve done about 1500km in total, in a little bit under a month.

Hokkaido big loop
Hokkaido Niseko loop

Wet and wild

The first six days are very hot, and then it starts raining. And it keeps raining, for days on end. Descents in mist and rain with soaking wet shoes are no fun. The tent and sleeping bag are very comfortable, as are outdoor onsens at 6am, with views of steaming volcanoes.

Onsen with a view

One day I unwittingly cycle through a typhoon. This means thick fog, solid rain and punishing side winds. There is no shelter or conbinis on the long, straight and boring road through coastal flatlands. That day the roads are mostly empty. All the fishing boats are on the shore, and it feels as if I’m cycling through an extremely wet zombie apocalypse. The occasional motorcyclist that passes me shakes his fist or waves at me, encouraging me in my craziness. Ganbatte!

Wetness the fitness

I decide to bypass the peninsula beyond Nemuro where I was planning to wild camp on Hokkaido’s easternmost cape. Instead, I head for the nearest campsite with a hot shower and a laundrette. I’m glad about that decision, as I later read on the Japanese meteorological website that a 1m tsunami warning had been issued for that very peninsula. That day I do 105km, as there was nothing to do but push on.

The only way is up

Another challenge, apart from the rain, is the climbing. I’ve done quite a few mountain passes, going from sea level to 1000m. the gradients are usually very good, the views of forested mountains absolutely stunning. Reaching a summit is always a satisfying feat, and the downhill a nice reward for the hard work.

Hokkaido history and culture

Hokkaido is the ancestral home of the bearded and bear-worshipping Ainu people, and I visit some interesting Ainu sites and museums around Lake Akan.

Japanese culture really only arrived when settlers arrived around the middle of the 19th century. Many of them were decommissioned samurai, as the colonization of Hokkaido more or less coincided with a societal shake-up that saw the abolishment of this particular well-educated and cultured warrior class.

Sign of the samurai

As it is there are not that many historical or cultural highlights such as temples and museums, and it’s all about natural splendour. I do visit one museum, about a famous sumo wrestler. I can’t read the signs but the collection of pictures and religious paraphernalia is impressive.

In that sense, Hokkaido is very different from southern Japan, where I cycled before. There is little interesting architecture, but I like the log cabins, made of solid wooden beams.

Block hut

One aspect of Japanese culture that I do get to enjoy is, of course, the fantastic food. When I am not eating the standard bento boxes from the conbinis that is.

The Hokkaido Wilds

But, oh, the nature… Hokkaido is indeed wild and wonderful. The flood- and coastal plains can be a bit boring, and actually remind me of my home village. Flatlands, straight lines, grassland and cornfields, cows, farms, modern harvest combiners. It’s weird to see this kind of almost Dutch-like countryside but with Japanese farmers on the tractors. Hokkaido produces a lot of milk and I love the fresh ice cream.

I only spend a couple of half-days cycling in the flatlands. The rest of my time in Hokkaido is filled with cycling up the side of volcanoes, finding gorgeous lakes or pedalling along the coastline.

Lake Shikaribetsu
Lake Shikotsu & Eniwa volcano

Hot spring, you make my heart sing

Then there are the onsens. My expectations of Hokkaido were high (inspired by the fantastic Hokkaido Wilds website), and one thing I dreamed of was spending every night camping next to a hot spring. I wasn’t disappointed: at many places, I could have a long hot soak after a long cold and wet day on the bicycle. The cutest onsen I found was one with a little concrete statue of tanuki, a little mischievous raccoon spirit. The hot water comes spouting of his gigantic cock. I found the onsen in a little hidden jungly valley and shared it with a super nice Japanese couple.

Tanuki

In the first days, I do quite a bit of wild camping.

The perfect wild camping spot when it’s not raining
Wild camping, staying dry under a bridge

Animal collective

I had hoped to do a bit more wild camping, but the many signs warning of bears around the Shiretoko peninsula lead me to stay at campsites that are surrounded by electric fences. One day a police car stops me, as I am cycling up a big climb. In the rain, naturally. The cops try to tell me something. I explain that I don’t speak Japanese. They then do a very funny bear impersonation, with big smiles on their faces. They are all smiles but I don’t think they are joking. Finally they send me on my way with a ‘be careful, ok?’.

I don’t see any non-taxidermied bears, and I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed. One time I hear one. I’m cycling down a small road and all of a sudden I hear something that sounds like an elephant falling out of a tree. I stop the bike, start shouting and clapping, and the bear disappears with more noise of breaking branches. Whoa. I do see lots of other wildlife, such as the sly kitsune (fox) and some magnificent deer.

Cute kitsune

Homeward bound

I could write a 1000 more words on the beauty of cycling around Hokkaido and all the impressions it left on me. But after one month I pack up my bicycle and return home, to Kunming.

I’m fully recharged, and ready to take on my new job of editor for GoKunming. Since my new job is writing (dream job!), I won’t have much time to update this blog anymore. If you like you can sign up for the GoKunming newsletter and get weekly updates about life in Yunnan.

Arigato gozaimas!

The Spring of content

It’s been a while since my last update. If I wasn’t fully emotionally immersed yet in my life in Kunming because of visa uncertainties, I definitely am now. I got the coveted residence permit after my Hongkong trip. life here does feel different now, more secure. I extended the lease on my apartment with another two years, a big commitment.

Since then there has been one more set back. I ended up in the hospital with a malfunctioning heart. This happened right after a week-long solo bike trip over Chinese New Year. I’m feeling healthy and strong and all of a sudden I am in the emergency ward of a big university hospital with something that looked and felt like a heart attack. A few days later I am discharged with a fancy diagnosis: Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disease, and luckily my heart was only showing the symptoms and there is no lasting damage. My own body attacks my thyroid, which in turn led to my heart to slow down to a dangerously low and arrhythmic heart beat.

Three cheers for the staff at the Second Affiliated Hospital of Kunming Medical University

It was a scary experience, but throughout I have felt warm and safe, surrounded by excellent medical staff and my caring friends. If anything, I’m happier than ever before. The acute realization that I might be dying and at the same time feeling that all is well in my life gave enormous reassurance about the choices I have made that brought me here. After the initial shock, I felt in good hands in the hospital and my friends helped me by bringing food, looking after my cat and entertaining me with sci-fi series and stupid jokes about life and death.

For a couple of weeks after I was very tired but right now I’m feeling very good. I’m on medication for my thyroid and changed to a gluten free diet, which is fairly easy to manage in a city that runs on rice noodles. As a result I’ve lost five kilos and feeling even more energetic then before.

In short, I’m in tune with the season. Kunming, the city of eternal Spring, is in bloom. Lilac clouds of jacaranda are billowing over the streets, it’s almost 30 degrees, and I’ve been participating in some fun outdoor activities.

I’ve bought a longboard, joined the Hash House Harriers, the ‘drinking club with a running problem’, and last weekend I walked a 13km charity walk to raise money for We4She, an initiative of a friend of mine that aims to help women who have suffered domestic violence, sex workers and LGBTQ people. This is important since they receive no recognition or support from the government or acceptance in the society.

As if I wasn’t busy enough, I’ve initiated an art collective. Kunming has a small but thriving performance art scene, and together with like-minded artists and academics I’ve started the Kunming International Situationist Society. As yet it has been a pretty informal and infrequent gathering of artists, historians, feminists and anthropologists. We have reread and talked about the Situationist canon and other neo-Marxist theory, which offers an interesting angle on contemporary Chinese society. This is supposedly a Marxist society, yet it is the most capitalist society I have ever lived in. Another thing is that everyone is constantly staring at their phone screens.

I’ve always been interested in the Situationists, their theory and practices. How to have real experiences instead of experiencing life through a screen, how to fight the relentless commodification of everything from work down to the most intimate and personal life experiences. In a way this ties in with my passion for bike travel, which is all about being in the moment. It also ties in with my background in architectural history and city planning: how to design a city that is made for living and playing rather than a machine that is making money for the few. I’m pondering my own art practice, how to translate these ideas into more coherent writing, thinking and practice. Im probably thinking too much and not producing, but for now I am very happy to meet up with like-minded thinkers and practitioners. We have done a dérive, and walked from the new Kunming far south to the old Kunming around Green Lake: a 40km walk that made us feel and experience the city and it’s changing meanings in a new way. Soon we will do a film screening, our first public event.

By Guy Debord and Asger Jorn

Another initiative I have been part of since it’s inception is the Kunming Knitting Club. We don’t knit. We are a feminist collective, but feminism is a word that doesn’t sit well with the powers that be, and definitely not in organized form. So, we talk about knitting on WeChat, and about heavier topics when we meet up in person. I have more women friends than I have ever had before in my life and I’m learning a lot about Chinese society from my Chinese girlfriends. I’ve heard shocking stories, but I’m immensely inspired by the power of these women who are fighting the norms posed upon them by this society. If all I can do is offer my home and be quiet and listen then this is what I will do.

All of this is within what is legally allowed in China, but skirting the margins. Right now there is a big crackdown on organized crime. All the bars in Kunming have been closed for a week and everyone is feeling a bit on edge. Censorship is encroaching further every day. More and more foreigners are leaving. Today I find that my blog has been blocked in China. In a way it is an honour: I am not afraid to be critical of the country that I love. What I am doing with these groups is sharing international experience, and hoping that change will slowly come from within, by Chinese people who I am very proud to call my friends.

Hongkong: Hikes and Hovels

What do you think of when you think of Hongkong? Highrise! I hear you say. Yes, but no. Hongkong has way more to offer than towering blocks of concrete and steel.

Last new year’s eve I had to go to Hongkong (I know, my life is so hard) to finally pick up my work permit. I spend a week there and do a fair bit of exploring. I stay in what is possibly the seediest and busiest backpacker warren in the world. But, I also discover a long and peaceful hike that shows me nature and history in equal measure. These two extreme experiences live side by side in the dense and fantastic city that is Hongkong.

Chungking Express

I’m no film buff but Wong Kar Wai is one of my favourite filmmakers of all time. In the Mood for Love inspires my love of qipao, and I have never stopped listening to its achingly beautiful soundtrack. One Wong Kar Wai film I hadn’t yet seen was Chungking Express, which offers snapshots of life in the notorious Chungking Mansions in Kowloon. It follows two quirky romances of handsome police officers. New crush: a young Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Tony Leung is also very cute.


Enter the Mansions

Maybe it’s a good thing I hadn’t seen the film yet. I have to book high season accommodation at the very last minute thanks to Chinese bureaucracy. The only option that won’t bankrupt me is Chungking Mansions.

I had heard the stories about Chungking Mansions from old China hands. These somehow conjured up images of another cheap backpacker paradise: Khao San Road in Bangkok. This is also somewhat seedy but overall I have good memories of staying there. I enjoyed the throng of dreadlocked backpackers, cheap street food and fun things to do and see. And so I booked myself into a room in Maharaja guesthouse. For 4m2, with private bathroom I pay 60 USD a night.

Busy as a bee hive

Hongkong is always busy, but this time even more so. The streets are incredibly crowded with tourists who have come to celebrate new years eve. Because I have flown into Shenzhen my trip involves a border crossing and lot of public transport changes. It takes a long time before I finally move through a throng of people on the busy pavements of Kowloon. Until I finally find myself in front of the Mouth of Hell. Chungking Mansions.

Chungking Mansions is a rather grand name for what is one enormous grubby concrete cube that is filled to the rafters with drug sellers, prostitutes, backpackers, money changers, suit makers, food sellers, fake watch hawkers, junkies, poor Hongkong workers, homeless people, thieves and scammers from every corner of the globe.

They are all operating on a gigantic ground floor that is an intimidating maze oozing with small shops and food stalls. The trick is to throw yourself in there, ignore all the sleaze, improper propositions and other cat calls and find the correct elevator shaft that will take you up to your hostel. Somehow I manage to do this, and I push away the alarming thought that I will never ever find my way out again.

My Hongkong home

Luckily the hostel owners are an incredibly prim and proper Sikh family, who run a very clean place. Chungking Mansions was built in the sixties of the last century as a block of fairly big apartments for affluent families. Now these are divided into the tiniest little rooms and a confusing maze of doors and hallways. After checking in in a claustrophobic cramped hallway the son takes me through the blood-splattered stairwell to the floor where I will be staying.

I hadn’t quite realized just how small a 4m2 room (including bathroom) would be, and there is no window. Son sees the look of shock on my face and promises me an upgrade after new years eve. I might be able to get a room with a window! On the upside, the room is very quiet, and very clean. Once I am alone in my room I can’t help but laugh. Staying in Chungking Mansions is in a way a rite of passage. I already know I will enjoy retelling the story of my stay.

After a day I find I am used to it. I briskly wind my way through the throngs downstairs and no one bothers me anymore. I think of my windowless room as a cabin in the belly of a ship. After my upgrade to a slightly bigger room, I get not just a window but even one with a glimpse of trees, and I count myself lucky.

I enjoy a quiet night in, watching Chungking Express on my Macbook. Now I am also one of the experienced people. Someone who will knowingly smile when China newbies discuss their visa runs to Hongkong, and contemplate staying at Chungking Mansions.

Hiking the New Territories

A few days after checking in to Chungking Mansions I venture to explore another lesser known side of Hongkong.

The New Territories is a huge (more than 900km2) yet little known part of Hongkong. The area encompasses almost all of Hongkong except Hongkong Island and Kowloon. It borders on China and consists of mountains, coastline, more than 200 islands and numerous wetlands. These territories take up 86% of Hongkong yet only half the population (about four million people at the last count) lives here. This means it’s not nearly as densely built up as Island and Kowloon.

A little bit of Hongkong history

The UK first acquired Hongkong Island in 1842 as part of the Opium War bounty. 56 years later the Qing emperor of China leased the New Territories to the UK, under a treaty that granted them use of the territory until 1997.

It’s not all that long ago that the UK got hold of Hongkong, is it? I won’t go into the details of the Opium Wars . Suffice to say that China has plenty of reasons to be resentful and wary of foreign powers seeking footholds in the country.

The reason the UK needed a larger chunk of land was that Hongkong grew very quickly and suffered an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1894. Local government sought to expand in order to better the living circumstances of its inhabitants. A secondary reason was that they wanted to keep the expansion of other colonial empires into China at bay. For instance the Germans in Qingdao (Tsingtao beer comes from Qingdao for a reason) and the French, who were approaching from Vietnam and southern China.

The Hakka people

Another interesting fact about the New Territories is that for centuries it was home to the Hakka people. They are a seafaring Han people whose origins are shrouded in the mists of time but who have spread far and wide over the world. The Chinese characters for Hakka (客家) literally mean ‘guest people’, since they are not bound to a region like other minorities but are more defined by their wanderlust, and 75 million Hakka live all over the world today.

In the 17th century the Hakka people arrived in what is now the New Territories of Hongkong, and here they lived and farmed in remote coastal walled villages. In post-war Hongkong new generations of Hakka sought a better life in the city, refugees from mainland China who were fleeing the Great Leap forward famine started arriving in droves, agriculture went into decline and most villages started to be abandoned in the 20th century.

The Territories today

The villages are still there, and here I find a beautiful hike, meandering along the Mangkut-ravaged coastline. I walk for one full day and see a completely different side of Hongkong.

Because public transport in Hongkong is so good it is easy to get there. The bus drops me off at a cheap and cheerful cafe where I enjoy a hearty local version of the English breakfast with a strong hot lemon tea. The rest of the day I walk either close to the sea or clamber up and down paths through the hilly jungle, from Luk Keng to Wu Kau Tang, via the one village that is coming back to life: Lai Chi Wo.


Across the sea, I see the port of Shenzhen, a new megacity in mainland China that I have yet to visit. It is a strange view, this new tech city right there across the water, while I am following a trail through the silence and the history of the empty Hakka villages. There is still a lot of debris from the recent typhoon, and I even see an upturned boat that looks like it has been smashed onto the beach by the storm. Apart from that the path is tidy, there are hardly any people and I am glad I brought enough snacks to make it to the end of the day.

Luk Keng is the first village, and because the bus stop is close by it is still fairly close to civilisation. One older lady and her dogs live here, and she chases me away when I wander into the one street of the village and peer into the picturesque ruins. Most buildings look like they are from the 1960’s. The friendly dogs follow me for a while until I leave their territory.

I keep walking, and feel the mad rush of Hongkong and the chaos of Chungking Mansions disappear from my mind. All is so quiet here. The next villages are truly ghost villages. Broken windows, trees tearing the brickwork apart with their roots, slowly demolishing the houses. Some houses still bear scraps of red paper, signs of families who return once a year to pay respect to their ancestral home.

Around lunchtime I am all of a sudden face to face with a wild boar, who seems just as surprised to see me as I am to see him. I don’t move and he disappears into the bush. Wild boar, in Hongkong!

Lai Chi Wo

Then I find the highlight of the hike. Lai Chi Wo is a typical walled Hakka village, except that this one is coming back to life. There is no road, so you can only get here by boat or on foot. Yet people live here, and I see workers busy with the restoration of the village school. The rural sustainability project is sponsored by HSBC bank.

I look around Hip Tin temple which is beautiful.

Here you see examples of traditional Chinese building, with feng shui applied in the layout of the houses and temples.

In the village itself is a strange mix of houses falling to ruin and other houses being lovingly restored. As I wander around I run into Adley, an eccentric but friendly local who invites me for tea. He lives and works as a permaculture farmer in Lai Chi Wo, together with his wife and small son. He used to work in Hongkong central as a psychotherapist, until he decided to choose the rural life. Here he grows curcuma and ginger, because, as he says: ‘roots are easy’.

Roots manoeuvres

What he says somehow touches on everything I have experienced today and the days before. Roots are easy. But are they really?

Adley moving from the busy city to an old and remote house. Working hard to keep the weeds and ruin at bay. Hakka people upping roots and moving over the centuries, living all over the world. Tree roots creeping through the crevasses in their ruined houses. Even Chungking Mansions, which is the most culturally dense and diverse place on earth. 120 different nationalities pass through in a years time. It is a place where uprooted people drift by and converge, like pieces of wood floating down a stream and clumping together in a gully. I am one of them, replanting myself in China. Here I hope to put some good roots into the ground. But is any of this easy?

I buy some curcuma powder from Adley. This morning I mixed it into my breakfast smoothie. Growing new roots might not always be easy, but this Lai Chi Wo curcuma is certainly delicious, very healthy, and comes with a good story.