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In the northern Japan
Next day we hastily packed our belongings, trying to escape the approaching rain, but in the end we did not avoid getting wet. We put on clothes made of "Gamex" fabric. After a while they were soaked through, because contrary to what we expected "Gamex" was windproof rather than waterproof. In fact we did have waterproof "breathable" clothes with us, but we did not feel like digging for them in the panniers, as we expected the sky to clear soon. Thus we cycled in the rain for several hours. Shivering with cold I was worried that we could get pneumonia. Our decision was to look for overnight accommodation, but it was easier said than done. The nearest town was 10 km away, and the nearest budget lodging would cost us USD 75 per person - a kind of luxury we could not afford. We went from door to door, asking around a dozen people for accommodation, or at least some dry space to spend a night under a roof, but to no avail. By sheer luck we met Mr Shigeru Takayama, and elderly gentleman who spoke excellent English, which truly surprised us. As we later learned, during World War Two he was interned in Singapore, a British colony at that time.

Have I already mentioned that very few Japanese people can pride themselves on a good command of English? I was told that they are taught that language starting from kindergarten, but after graduating from a university they still find it difficult to say a few sentences properly. I found it to be true. I was not surprised that the elder generation is not familiar with foreign languages, but young people…? It seemed that an average high school student had problems remembering even the most basic words. I tried to find out what were the reasons for that state of affairs. First of all, the Japanese treated English the same way as Poles used to treat Russian language. They learned it because they had to. Secondly, English grammar and pronunciation is very challenging for them, being completely different from Japanese. What is interesting, people in Japan do not pronounce "r" and they cannot even tell the difference between "r" and "l". Moreover, the unwillingness to use foreign languages is embedded deep in their subconsciousness, which reminds me of the French.

Let us now go back to Mr Shigeru Takayama though. He turned out to be a respectable serious businessman and the president of "Rotary Club". He invited us to his house, where we could get warm, dry our clothes and sleep. He literally treated us like family members, and showed us his precious art collection.

Some time afterwards I wondered why the Japanese found it so difficult to let a stranger under their roof. I concluded that it was not due to inborn lack of hospitality. The reason was their mentality and tradition. Firstly, they are afraid of strangers. It gets even worse when a gaijin (foreigner) knocks on their door and asks them for anything. Even though I was capable of explaining in Japanese what I wanted, on numerous occasions people refused to help me when the only thing I asked for was to put up a tent next to their house. Like a curious journalist, I carefully watched their reactions. In most cases, they would say "yame" ("no") at once, or suggested that I go somewhere else, for example to their neighbours. Secondly, one of the most important characteristics of Japanese mentality is respect for other people's property, and therefore one's house is a sacred thing. Still, whenever we were actually invited in, we experienced unbelievable hospitality.

Going back to our expedition… After sleeping at Mr Shigeru Takayama's place, we headed for Aizu Wakamatsu, visiting Okawa Rhein on our way. A picturesque valley and heavenly blue water of the river – that is how the place can be described in short. In a nearby shop with souvenirs, I noticed a curious thing – large, enclosed jars, filled with some liquid to 1/3 of their height, with live snakes inside. I was told that this is how a special kind of sake is made, which is believed to cure various ailments and improve man's potency in particular.

On our way north we had to face many obstacles, one of which was a toll road with a poetic name – "The Valley of Heaven". Not only was it expensive (we paid JPY 90 for each bike), but also incredibly steep. On the other hand, running almost exclusively along mountain ridges, it gave plenty opportunities for admiring views.
By the way, Japan is probably the only place in the world where cyclists are expected to pay for getting on such a road. As for the quality of roads, in turn, we can just envy the Japanese. Roadworks are carried out perfectly. Appropriate warning signs are placed half a kilometre ahead, and roadworks themselves are properly marked with special traffic lights. In some places we even saw counters displaying time left until the red light turned green. Despite all those precautions, uniformed workers would normally secure both ends of the roadworks, waving flags or illuminated batons. As we were cycling through tunnels with such "excavations", traffic was usually stopped in order to let us pass safely. Roads were really well maintained in that country. Over the 3000 km that we covered, we did not notice even one hole in the road surface!!! Holes had no right to exist. On one occasion we were astonished to see three people measuring a small bump on the road surface, and taking photos of it. Furthermore, mirrors were supplied close to all sharp bends to help notice vehicles coming from the opposite direction. In addition, barriers were mounted in all places where the road the road shoulder was even slightly dangerous. Signage was also excellent on all roads, so it was virtually impossible to get lost. Fortunately, road signs were both in Japanese and English – otherwise we would have been in serious trouble trying to decipher Kanji characters. I think it requires no comment.

In Yonezawa we found a shop with mountain bikes. A rarity – most Japanese bike shops are full of city bicycles with mediocre accessories and fittings. The Japanese rarely use bikes for pleasure or sports. Throughout our stay in the Land of the Cherry Blossom we only came across around 20 people cycling for fun or actually practising this sport. We did not see even one cycling tourist, which explains why we generated so much curiosity. This does not mean, however, that bicycles are not popular as a means of transport. Quite the contrary! Millions of Japanese use bikes on a daily basis, especially in the cities, while going shopping, commuting to work, or rushing to a train station. Some bicycle parking facilities can hold a few thousand two-wheelers – they are so alike that I kept wondering how the owners managed to find their property. Other popular means of transport in urban areas are scooters, and of course cars – counted in tens of millions. As a consequence, the traffic is dense.

Some families own a few cars. After all, buying a vehicle is not a problem – an average monthly salary is just enough for a second-hand Toyota. It should be noted here that each major city prides itself on an extensive bicycle route system. What is interesting, bicycle lanes are not clearly separated from roads or sidewalks. In other words, cycling is allowed on all sidewalks.

On the way to Sendai, we set up our tent on a river bank. Next day I accidentally dived in the river, with my clothes on. I wanted to fill up my water bottle, and having stepped on a slippery stone I performed something that might be described as St Vitus Dance, finishing it up to my neck in water. We literally laughed our socks off. Luckily, the day was warm, so the clothes dried on me quickly. On the following day we reached the shore of the Pacific. Cycling against the wind, we travelled at a rather slow pace, passing numerous fishing villages situated far from busy roads. I remember them for the unpleasant, omnipresent fishy smell.

In the evening – as usual – we started looking for overnight accommodation, eventually knocking at Mr and Mrs Chiba's door. They received us with unusual warmth – as if we were their next of kin. The host, a 71-year-old fisherman, was particularly friendly. His wife was a Japanese karaoke champion. What is karaoke? There are song lyrics displayed on a video screen, music track (without the lead vocal) is played on loudspeakers, and you can start singing for as long as you wish! It is a great form of entertainment, and an excellent way to relieve everyday stress. In every city you can go to a karaoke bar to perform in front of a large audience, or you can rent a separate room and enjoy a more intimate atmosphere with a bunch of friends.

Coming back to the Chibas – nobody in the family could speak English, but our host was very clever and we had no problem communicating with him. He was constantly thinking about what else he could do to help us. He offered to wash our clothes. Next day he prepared European food for breakfast. He also gave us money, and when we protested, he said he would be offended if we refused to accept his gift. In the end we were given some mementos, and the hosts told us they wanted to be our Japanese grandparents. We were sorry to leave, but the time had come to move on.