Must read

What to read: Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne

The Japanese royal family has long since been steeped in mystery. This book  Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne now changes that and gives you a rare insight in the lives of Nurihito and his wife Masako and their little daughter Aiko who are in succcession for the royal throne.

Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne (ISBN 1585425680) is a controversial 2006 book by Australian investigative journalist Ben Hills. Billed as “The Tragic True Story of Japan’s Crown Princess,” the book drew criticism from the Imperial Household Agency and the government of Japan over its supposed inaccuracies, and Hills claims to have received death threats. The English version was released in Japan in September 2007.

A translation was to be published in Japan by the country’s largest publisher, Kodansha. But Kodansha demanded that some of the contents which was pointed out by Imperial household to be revised due to “substantial number of factual errors”. Hills refused and Kodansha, in response, decided not to publish the book. A small publishing company, Dai-san Shokan, which is headed by a former associate of Japanese Red Army later published the book in August 2007, along with a companion book by investigative journalist Mineo Noda titled The Truth about ‘Princess Masako‘ — Mystery of the Contents Which Were Censored, which claims to reveal the ways the Japanese Establishment tried to prevent Hills’ book being published.

The author state that the book was written after over a year of research in JapanAustraliaAmerica and England, and interviews with friends, teachers and colleagues of the Crown Prince and Crown Princess.

Among the claims made in the book are that Masako was forced to abandon her studies at Oxford because her thesis topic was too controversial; that the Imperial Household Agency opposed the marriage from the start and has bullied the Princess, leading to a nervous breakdown; that Princess Aiko was conceived as a result of in vitro fertilisation treatments; and that Masako is suffering from clinical depression.

The aftermath

On February 13, 2007, the Japanese Foreign Ministry held a press conference in Tokyo at which it denounced the book as “insulting to the Japanese people and the Imperial family,” alleging “..disrespectful descriptions, distortions of facts, and judgemental assertions with audacious conjectures and coarse logic.” Press conferences at which the book was denounced were also held by Japan’s ambassadors to America and Australia.

Japan’s leading media, including the AsahiMainichiYomiuri and Nihon Keizai newspapers all rejected advertisements for the book.


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What to read: Autobiography of a geisha by Sayo Masuda

Autobiography of a Geisha (芸者,苦闘の半生涯 Geisha, kutō no hanshōgai literally Geisha, Half a Lifetime of Pain and Struggle), is a book by Sayo Masuda (ますだ • さよ Masuda Sayo,kanji 増田 小夜). It was first published in Japan in 1957, and the English translation by G. G. Rowley was published in 2003. Masuda wrote her autobiography between the years of 1956 and 1957 in response to a magazine ad for a non-fiction women’s writing competition. She had never learned to read more than hiragana, and wrote her entire book in it. Her editors carefully worked to convert her work into the standard kanji while preserving the feeling of her original writing.

Early life

As a child Masuda lived as a nurse-maid in a large farming household near Shiojiri, where she got little to eat, no education, poor sleeping quarters, and was frequently punished. She initially spent most of her time looking after the owners’ young children, but after being caught taking extra melons from the field to feed herself she was forced to do manual labor. During these years other children gave her the derisive nickname “Crane”, as in the winter she was never allowed to wear socks and would lift one leg up and warm her foot on the thigh of the other leg. This nickname was used even when she started as a novice geisha, and Masuda did not learn her own real name until she was hospitalized at the age of 12 and the doctors called her Ms. Masuda.

Life as a geisha

When Masuda was twelve, her mother needed money to pay for her husband’s medical treatment. Her uncle retrieved her from the landowners and sold her to an okiya (geisha house) called Takenoya in Suwa. There, due to her illiteracy and the geisha gave her another nickname, “Low”, which was short for low intelligence, and she was frequently made fun of for her dark, sunburned skin, as a pale complexion was highly valued among geisha. However, Elder Sister Karuta, the second oldest geisha in the okiya, worked with Masuda to help her through her training, starting a lifelong friendship between the two. Soon after Masuda’s arrival, one of the other geisha in the okiya, Takemi, died of peritonitis caused by gonorrhea, and her refusal to seek medical treatment in the hopes of hastening her death greatly influenced Masuda’s perception of living as hell and dying as paradise. Takemi’s death also caused Karuta to drink very heavily, leading to confrontations with the head of the okiya. During one such confrontation, Masuda intervened on Karuta’s behalf; for this, she was thrown down the stairs and her right leg was broken. It was this injury which landed her in the hospital, where she learned her real name.

While Masuda was still recovering the hospital, she and Karuta decided to commit suicide together by throwing themselves in front of a train; however, after Karuta had carried Masuda out on her back to the tracks, they backed out right before it hit them. Karuta stumbled as she fell off the tracks, landing on on Masuda’s broken leg, and the next day an infection set in. It took several days to heal, nearly requiring amputation and ultimately leaving her with a large scar that she was self-conscious of for the rest of her life. Masuda’s real mother came to visit her, but only stayed for four days, leaving Masuda alone in the hospital again. She eventually recovered and returned to the okiya, where she debuted as an apprentice. As she got closer to becoming a full-fledged geisha, her work became increasingly sexual in nature, and she began to get connected with a danna, or patron.

Upon debuting, Masuda underwent mizuage with a man nicknamed Cockeye. After her first time, she was sold four more times under the pretense of having never undergone it, as this made a huge profit for the okiya since many men wanted to be the partner for a geisha’s mizuage. A year later, Cockeye bought out her contract as a geisha and she went to live with him and his mistress. Masuda despised Cockeye, so she convinced him to let her get a job at a factory. There, she caught the eye of a man named Motoyama and they quickly fell in love; however, she was unable to keep their relationship from Cockeye and had to stop seeing Motoyama. Upon receiving a letter stating that he was leaving, that same night she again attempted suicide by trying to drown herself; however, she was pulled out by someone who happened to be fishing nearby.

Seeking a living

After Masuda was released from the hospital, she ran from Cockeye, eventually having to return to Shiojiri to look for family. She managed to locate her aunt and one of her younger brothers. She convinced her aunt to get her a job at the sawmill she worked at, but quickly decided to find a job that could pay better, so she decided to go to Chiba to find Karuta. When she realized she needed to get money for the train fare, the only person she could get it from was Hii, who made her dance naked in return. When she arrived in Chiba, the house she and Karuta were staying in was destroyed in a firebomb raid, She worked several jobs until she was able to get a job at a restaurant. While she was there, she received two marriage proposals, and the second, from the son of the restaurant’s owner, caused Masuda to leave the restaurant, because although she was only 21 at the time she already had a long history as a geisha and felt that she could not risk ruining his reputation by marrying him.

She and her brother joined a group of people foraging for food in the countryside to resell in the city, and there she met a Korean man who gave her another job selling soap. She did this for two and a half years, when in the summer of 1952 her brother contracted intestinal tuberculosis and was hospitalized. His penicillin shots were 600 yen each, and Masuda soon realized that the only way to make enough money for them was to start prostituting. Although she kept her prostitution hidden from her brother, he felt he was placing an undue burden on her and committed suicide. She decided to bury him next to their father, so she decided to return to Shiojiri.

When Masuda returned, she caught a cold and was bedridden with a high fever. Her old lover, Motoyama, had returned to nearby Suwa and was a city councilor; when he heard that she had returned, he sought her out and found her a place to live. Despite the fact that Motoyama had married and had a child, they began regularly seeing each other. Around this time Masuda decided to learn how to read hiragana, and kept a diary of their encounters. However, when elections for city council came near, at the urging of Motoyama’s wife Masuda decided to leave him to improve his chances of being reelected.

She moved to Toyoshina, where Karuta had opened a restaurant, but her longing for Motoyama caused her to start uncontrollably drinking. She became bloated and jaundiced, but continued to drink even after her doctor warned her she would soon die of liver failure if she continued. Despite the urgings of her doctor and Karuta, Masuda decided that she would attempt suicide a third time, and after visiting her brother’s grave, she tried to freeze herself to death, and had almost succeeded when an elderly man found her and rescued her. He convinced her to make one more attempt at having a good living, and she returned to Toyoshina.


Upon returning to Toyoshina, Masuda got a job as a waitress, and discovered her love for children. She frequently told stories to groups of children in town. Paradoxically, she also played numerous tricks on people around town, trying to humble geisha or anyone she saw holding their status over others. Eventually, she heard that farmers in the area were desperate for people to work the rice fields, and over their protestations she decided to go to work there. When the rice was planted, she was asked by a family to look after their children, where her autobiography ends

In the English version of the book, G. G. Rowley wrote an afterword detailing her attempts to meet Masuda in person. Masuda almost exclusively communicated through her publishers, and at the time of the English translation’s publication in 2003 they had declined Rowley’s request, saying that Masuda wished to keep as low a profile as possible. However, in 2004 Masuda made a personal request for Rowley to visit her in Nagano, making Rowley one of the only people who she agreed to meet with, and afterwards they remained in touch for the rest of Masuda’s life.


Later life

After being a caretaker for several years, Masuda was able to open her own restaurant, and ran it for several decades. She and Karuta, who herself opened and ran a restaurant until three years before her death, remained friends. However, Karuta, who had fought to save Masuda from alcoholism, herself became an alcoholic, and her death in the mid-1990s was a huge blow to Masuda. On June 8th, 2008, Masuda found out she had liver cancer, and she died a few weeks later on June 26th, 2008.


Throughout her autobiography, Masuda continually projects the idea that parents should be responsible for their children and should not bear children they are not prepared to support. When she found an abandoned six month old baby, she felt the desire to quickly kill it so it would not have to suffer either a slow death or the ignominy of growing up without parents. Though Masuda never got married and never had children, caring for the children of others was always her favorite way to spend her time.

She also vehemently argued against the prohibition of prostitution in Japan. She stated that although no one became a prostitute to enjoy it, it was merely human instinct to find a way to make a living when no other venues were open. Although she agreed it was probably well intentioned, she also stated that she could not have possibly survived if she hadn’t prostituted herself. Furthermore, she argued that simply banning prostitution would not stop people from engaging in it, as people who felt the need to engage in it would inevitably find ways to work around it.


Although Masuda finished second in the writing competition, after writing Autobiography of a Geisha she was harshly criticized by her community, and eventually had to move to another town.Largely because of this, she almost always communicated with people through her publisher, emphasizing that her goal was only to tell her story and never to become famous, and refused to meet with most people interested in discussing her book. Upon its translation into English, the book received positive reviews from Liza Dalby and Arthur Golden as well as several book reviewers.

Despite several academic reviews, the book has been strangely ignored in many publications about geisha. In her autobiography Geisha, a Life (also known as Geisha of Gion), published in 2002, Mineko Iwasaki claims to be the first geisha to come forward to tell her story. Many scholars echo this claim despite the fact that Masuda’s work was published 45 years before Iwasaki’s.


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The story of Sjakoera and David: Hitchhiking from Tokyo around Hokkaido

(For an English translation, please scroll down)

“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”

Hitchhiken van Tokio rond Hokkaido en terug.

hitchhikeroute japan


Dit keer een verhaal over Sjakoera Jongenelen en David Topol over hun lift- avontuur van Tokio rond Hokkaido.

Na vorig jaar van Nederland naar Japan gefietst te hebben, plaatste ik, Sjakoera Jongenelen (22jaar), op 24 juni 2013, op de vraag of er iemand was die met mij zou willen liften vanuit Tokio rond Hokkaido voor een kleine twee weken.  Couchsurfing is een initiatief van een aantal mensen waarbij je oproepjes kan plaatsen voor reisgezelschap, je een kamer kunt aanbieden ter overnachting of je profiel bijhouden als reisverslag zodat anderen kunnen zien waar je bent geweest.  Na twee dagen antwoordde David, een 19- jarige jongen uit Melbourne, Australië dat hij wel interesse had. We spraken af, besproken de route, namen de volgende morgen de metro zo ver mogelijk Tokio uit en begonnen onze trip.


Dag één, van Tokio naar Sendai, 27 juni 2013

In de ochtend hadden we moeite de entree van de tolweg naar Hokkaido te vinden, maar na twee uur rondlopen en een half uur wachten kregen we onze eerste lift van een vrachtwagen. Onze eerste dag liften ging hartstikke goed, we kwamen precies op de helft van onze route naar Hokkaido terecht in het plaatsje Sendai. We kwamen erachter dat de steden- of dorpjes in Japanse karakters opschrijven voor meer aandacht zorgde. Ook hielp het vaak om mensen op de man af te vragen(of gebaren) of je met ze mee mocht rijden: waar diezelfde mensen anders nooit gestopt zouden hebben. Af- en toe was het best een half uur of drie kwartier wachten: steeds korte tripjes van twintig kilometer gekregen, Tokio uit, van zakenmannen.

Op een gegeven moment kwamen we een koppel dat de dag ervoor getrouwd was op een eiland in Midden- Amerika, overnacht hadden in Tokio en op weg naar Sendai waren. Ze trakteerden ons op lunch(we wilden betalen maar ze duwden ons constant weg) en drie uur verder kwamen we terecht in hun ouderlijk huis, waar diner voor ons klaarstond, we namen een warme douche en bleven logeren: ontzettend lief.


Dag twee, van Sendai naar Sapporo, 28 juni 2013

Na het ontbijt reden we nog wat rond in Sendai met het bruidspaar, namen foto’s in de befaamde purikura, kregen alweer lunch om vervolgens afgezet te worden langs de snelweg,  het meisje kreeg net als haar moeder tranen in d’r ogen bij het afscheid, zo lief. We kwamen erachter dat de beste plekken om een lift te krijgen, tankstations of wegrestaurants zijn langs grote (snel- of tol)wegen. Steden- of dorpen opschrijven die niet zo ver lagen van waar we langs de weg stonden, hielp ook wel: in de auto vroegen we dan waar de persoon zelf heenging en of we misschien tot daar mee konden rijden.

Na twintig minuten kregen we een lift van twee uur van een kunstenaar, vervolgens een lift van een vrachtwagenchauffeur die ons naar de ferry- terminal in Aomori bracht.


Dag vier, Daisetzun- Asahidake, 30 juni 2013

Diezelfde vrachtwagenchauffeur bleek ons op te wachten op de parkeerplaats in Hakodate toen we de ferry afliepen: hij gaf ons een lift naar Sapporo. Na gekampeerd te hebben stonden we bij de expressway en werden opgepikt door drie schattige vrouwen, vervolgens een man die de Beatles voor ons draaide op weg naar Daisetzun- Asahidake.

Aangekomen begonnen we de hoogste berg van Hokkaido te beklimmen en bereikten na tweeënhalf uur de 2291m top. Waar we ons tent opzetten en de nacht spendeerden, de volgende ochtend begonnen we om vijf uur s’morgens met de hike terug. Het was ontzettend mooi en overweldigend.


Dag vijf, van Daisetzun- Asahidake  naar Kitami, 1 juli 2013.

We kregen een lift naar Biei, onderweg naar Akihawara, het bleek een dorp te zijn met enorme bloemenvelden om zich heen: we maakten een klein uitstapje naar de prachtig gekleurde bloemenvelden met besneeuwde bergen op de achtergrond.

Na Biei kregen we een lift naar Kitami maar twintig kilometer voor de stad reed de beste jongen over een baksteen heen en kreeg een lekke band. Dit terwijl hijzelf niet eens naar Kitami hoefde maar enkel voor ons drie uur naar de stad had gereden. Tijdens het wachten op de wegenwacht zei hij “sorry dat mijn rijkwaliteiten niet goed zijn” en stond hij erop de taxi te betalen, toen we duizendmaal onze excuses aanboden voor het ongemak antwoordde hij “later zal ik hierom lachen. Ik maak leuke verhalen om na te vertellen op deze manier”, dat vond ik wel een mooie manier om ernaar te kijken. Door de taxi werden we afgezet bij centraal station, waar we terechtkwamen in band- en dansrepetities van jongeren: ze begonnen met ons te praten en dansten en maakten muziek voor ons.

Hier doe je het voor:  om in totaal onverwachte situaties te komen en je erin te kunnen vinden. Ik kom uit een dorp vlakbij Rotterdam en ik heb er geen idee van dat iemand aan de andere kant van de wereld ieder weekend repeteert in het treinstation. Je leeft beide je eigen leven, totdat je elkaar ontmoet en iets moois deelt voor de eerste en meteen de laatste keer.


Dag zes, van Kitami naar Lake Kussharo naar Akan Kohan, 2 juli 2013.

Om zeven uur kregen we een lift naar Akan nationaal park van zowel een militair, als een vrouwtje en een geweldige ‘gekke’ jongen die constant in zichzelf aan het praten en aan het lachen was: bleek dat hij vijf maanden door Japan aan het rondrijden was in z’n rommelige auto. Bij geweldig mooie meren aangekomen en een koude duik genomen.

Vanaf de meren kregen we een lift van een man in een busje die ons een rit gaf van anderhalf uur, over bergen heen, naar Akan Kohan: terwijl hijzelf de totaal andere kant opmoest en dus enkel voor ons naar de stad was gereden! We gingen een hotel in toen er werd omgeroepen dat er een gratis parade zou zijn, wij er natuurlijk heen, we kregen fakkels in onze handen geduwd en liepen met muziek op de achtergrond de straat in waar de ainu- invloeden nog te zien zijn, ik voelde me een beetje Indiana Jones.  De straat was prachtig!


Dag zeven, Mt. Me- Akan naar Kuchiro, 3 juli 2013

In de ochtend zijn we zes kilometer wezen liften met een lief oud vrouwtje dat ijsthee voor ons had gehaald.  We zijn Mt. Me- Akan op gehiked, ik kreeg een orgasme toen ik het pad vlak naar de top opliep: het was ontzettend bebost en af- en toe kon je boven de struikbomen uitkijken en kon je mooie bergen- en meren zien.  Het was niet eens zo hoog maar onwijs prachtig.

Toen we weer beneden waren, vroeg David een koppel waar ze heen gingen en of we misschien mee mochten rijden, dat mocht! Tien minuten later hadden ze ijsjes voor ons gekocht, tien minuten later vroegen ze of we thee wilden drinken bij hen thuis en na ’t theedrinken vroegen ze of we wilden douchen en of we misschien wilden blijven logeren. Ze bestelden een grote kom sushi voor diner met groentes, soep, sake, bier en sorbetijs: ontzettend lief en mooi! Japan is geweldig, de natuur in Hokkaido is adembenemend en de mensen zijn kawaii.

Dag acht, van Kuchiro naar Shiaroi, 4juli 2013.

Het koppel had soba voor ontbijt gemaakt omdat ik had gezegd dat ik iedere dag soba at, toen hun dochten binnenkwam tijdens ontbijt schrok ze van ons, haha.

Gelift met een man die ging vissen voor vijf dagen en door verscheidene (zaken)mannen die geen engels kenden, vervolgens door bouwvakkers die samen de grootste lol hadden en ons afzetten bij een motel/onsen met Oost-Europese uitstraling in Shiaroi, toen het plensregende en we zeiden dat we wilden gaan kamperen. Toen we bij ze in de auto gingen zitten hadden we beide zoiets van, waar zijn we in ’s hemelsnaam in terecht gekomen?  Ze maakten foto’s van ons voor op facebook, bleven grappen maken en lachen maar het feit dat ze twee uur voor ons hadden omgereden en rondbelden naar kampeerplekken/motels betekende dat ze zich vermaakten: waar we blij om waren al begrepen we geen snars van ze.


Dag negen, terug naar Aomori, 5- 6juli 2013.

Het weer werd slechter, we reden de hele dag en kwamen terecht in Toya, we werden meegenomen door twee omaatjes die ons vieze bonenkoekjes gaf, ontzettend lieve vrouwtjes.  We probeerden in de avond nog snel een lift mee te pakken richting Hakodate zonder geluk en gingen slapen in een soort wachthuisje met kattenposters aan de muur.

De volgende ochtend kregen we een lift van een zakenman die voordat hij naar Hakodate reed nog een paar zaken af moest handelen, we vonden het goed en stapten in.  Het bleek een hele grappige, complimenteuze ladiesman te zijn, we werden getrakteerd op lunch, chocolade en drinken. Reden mee naar zijn kantoor waar hij lol trapte met zijn secretaressen , vervolgens gaf hij ons een rondleiding door Hakodate waar we eindigden op een kleine berg met uitzicht over de stad. Na een kop warme chocolademelk stopte hij mij toen ik de auto in wilde stappen, zei tegen David dat ik een dame was en opende demonstratief de autodeur voor me. Toen we de berg afreden stopte hij de auto, keek langs mij heen m’n autoraam uit en zei in gebrekkig engels “Sakura San, it’s beautiful eh?”, ik keek het raam uit en antwoorde “O wow, yes, it’s beautiful!’, waarop hij antwoordde “no…… youu!”. David en ik kwamen niet meer bij van het lachen waarop hij weer tegen David zei “you see David, Sakura San is happy now!”, vervolgens wilde hij een hotel voor ons betalen maar we bleven vriendelijk “nee” zeggen.  We kwamen erachter dat ijsjes halen de enige manier is om Japanners te bedanken voor hun open- en vriendelijkheid: koop de ijsjes wel snel en uit het zicht want anders worden de ijsjes óók voor je betaald!  Voor bijna ieder persoon dat ons een lift gaf, kochten we ijsjes als bedankje omdat we ze niks anders konden ‘opdringen’. In de nacht namen we de ferry terug naar Aomori.

Dag tien, van Aomori naar Yamagata, 7 juli 2013

In Aomori werden we in de ochtend opgepikt door een vrouwtje met een klein zoontje dat ons naar een soort boerenmarkt langs de tolweg bracht: heerlijke kersen en bananen als ontbijt.  Het werd weer een hele dag rijden naar Yamagata: een paar korte ritjes en vervolgens een man die ons zijn ‘zoon en dochter’ noemde en ons trakteerden op chocolade en drinken. Onze weg ging langs de noordwestkust van Honshu, vervolgens kregen we een lift van een man op z’n pensioen die lekker in z’n busje rond Japan reed voor vijf weken: hij bracht ons naar Mt. Haguro, één van de drie heilige bergen in Yamagata . Ik vond het jammer dat er een taalbarrière was, want ik kon zien/voelen dat hij echt wilde praten.

We beklommen Mt. Haguro om vervolgens te kamperen in een tuinhuisje op de berg.

Dag elf, van Yamagata naar Tokio, 8 Juli 2013

In  de ochtend daalden we af op weg naar de hoogste van de drie heilige bergen: Mt. Gasssan(1900m). We vroegen de eerste auto die we zagen om een lift naar het achtste station, vanaf daar beklommen we de mistige berg en bereikten na twee uur de tempel op de top.

We begonnen met de afdaling naar de derde berg: Mt. Yudono, na enkele waarschuwingen over het slechte weer. Alles ging goed totdat we bij een ontzettend steil ijsplateau terechtkwamen waar we constant uitgleden en slipten: het enige wat ik vast kon houden was het touw, het was mistig en ik zag enkel mensen skieën en snowboarden aan m’n rechterhand. David had om onverklaarbare klunzige reden z’n hand gesneden(hij wil nog steeds niet toegeven waarom) toen we weer voet ‘aan land’ zetten. Daar ontmoetten we een tourgroep vol oude Japanse hikers met, uiteraard, geavanceerde hike- uitrusting die met alle liefde Davids hand van verband voorzag en moesten lachen om onze klunzigheid.

We besloten de tourgroep te volgen naar een skilift 200meter verderop en ontmoetten meteen een hiker die ons een lift aanbood naar zijn woonplaats Yamagata.  Na voor de zoveelste keer getrakteerd te worden op lunch en kersen besloot hij om ons in plaats van naar Yamagata, naar de tolweg in Sendai te brengen.

Na vijf minuten langs de tolweg te staan kregen we onze laatste lift van een vrachtwagenchauffeur die ons afzette in een buitenwijk in Tokio. Om 00:30uur zat onze geweldige trip vol adembenemende natuur en ontzettend lieve en openhartige mensen erop!


hitchhikeroute japan

“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”
Hitch- hiking from Tokyo around Hokkaido and back.

This time a story about Sjakoera and David Topol about their hitchhike-adventure from Tokyo around Hokkaido.


After I cycled from the Netherlands to Japan last year I, Sjakoera Jongenelen(22 years old), put on the question on if there was someone who would like to hitchhike from Tokyo around Hokkaido with me for one- to two weeks. After two days David, a 19years old guy from Melbourne, Australia responded.

We met, discussed the route, took the subway the next morning out of Tokyo and began our trip.

Day one, from Tokyo to Sendai, June 27, 2013
After walking around for two hours looking for  the entrance of the toll road to Hokkaido, we got our first lift in a truck. On our first day of hitchhiking we reached Sendai, which was on the half of our route. We soon found out that writing down the cities in Japanese characters received more attention, also it helped to simply ask drivers if we could possibly get a lift, whereas the same people would’ve never stopped otherwise.  Also it helped a lot to write down cities that weren’t too far away.

From businessmen we got short lifts out of Tokyo, sometimes waiting for half an hour to fortyfive minutes to catch one .

On a certain point we met a couple that got married the day before on an island in middle- America, and who where on their way home to Sendai. They treated us lunch(we got pushed away when we offered to pay, this happened a lot throughout the whole trip) and ended up in their home three hours later, where their parents had made us diner! We took a warm shower and stayed the night, they were terribly sweet!

Day two, from Sendai to Sapporo, 28 juni 2013

After breakfast we drove around Sendai with the newlyweds, took pictures in the famous purikura, got treated on lunch again and eventually ended along the toll road. When saying goodbyes the girl got tears in her eyes, just like her mother.

We already found out that the best places to get a lift, were gasstations or restaurants alongside  the (high- or toll)road. After twenty minutes we got a two hour- lift from a wood- sculptor and a truckdriver that took us to the Aomori- Hakodate ferry-terminal.

Day four, Daisetzun- Asahidake, 30 juni 2013

That same truckdriver turned out to be waiting for us on the parkinglot in Hakodate after leaving the ferry and gave us a ride to Sapporo. That night we camped, in the morning we stood in front of the entrance to the toll road and catched a ride with three little ladies, and after that a sweet baseball-player that played the Beatles on our way to Daisetzun- Asahidake.

We started to hike the highest mountain of Hokkaido(2291m) and reached the top after two and a half hours. We camped on top, and started descending at five o’clock the next day. It was insanely beautiful and overwhelming.

Day five, from Daisetzun- Asahidake  to Kitami, 1 juli 2013.

We catched a ride to Biei, on the way to Akihawara, Biei turned out to be a village with enormous flowerfields surrounding it: we took a little excursion to the beautifully coloured flowerfields with snow covered mountains in the background.

After Biei we got a lift to Kitami from a guy that made a three hour- detour just for us, but twenty kilometres before the city the nice guy ran over a brick and ended up with a flat tyre. While waiting for the roadservice he aplogized for his ‘bad driving-skills’ and paid us a taxi. When we apologized for the inconvenience and thanked him for driving us he answered “later, I’ll laugh about this, this way I make nice stories tell”, I liked that way of looking at things. We were dropped of at Central Station, where we arrived in the middle of band/ dance- rehearsels: the kids started talking, singing and dancing for us.

And that’s exactly where you do things for:  to arrive in unexpected situations and make yourself comfortable in those. I’m from a village near Rotterdam and while living there I have no clue what is on at the other side of the world, I have no clue that someone is rehearsing every weekend in Central Station. You both live your own lives, until you meet each other and share something beautiful for the first and immediately the last time.

Day six, from Kitami to Lake Kussharo naar Akan Kohan, 2 juli 2013.

At seven o’clock in the morning we catched a ride to Akan national park, from a soldier and after him an crazy guy that was constantly talking and laughing in Japanese: turned out he was roadtripping through Japan for five months in his messy car. We arrived at splendid lakes and took a cold dive.

From the lakes on we got an one hour lift crossing Mountains to Akan Kohan, from a man that had to go the totally opposite way himself! We went on internet in a hotel when we heard an announcement about a free parade which ofcourse, as cheap tourists, we joined. We got torches in our hands and walked, with ainu-music in the background, into the gorgeous ‘ainu-street’,  I felt a bit like Indiana Jones!

Day seven, Mt. Me- Akan to Kuchiro, 3 juli 2013

In the morning we got a lift of a sweet old lady that bought us ice-tea. We hiked up Mt. Me- Akan,

In the morning we hitch-hiked six kilometres with a sweet old lady that bought us ice-thee. We hiked up Mt. Me- Akan, I got an orgasm when I walked the path close to the top: the forest was dense but once in a while you could peek over the trees and see the gorgeous mountains- and lakes around. Mt. Me- Akan wasn’t even that high but insanely beautiful.

When we hiked back down, David friendly asked a couple where they went and if it was possibly to go with them, luckily they said yes. Ten minutes later they bought us ice-cream, ten minutes later they asked us if we’d like to drink tea in their home and after drinking tea they asked us if we wanted to take a shower and maybe spent the night. They ordered a big bowl of sushi for diner combined with vegetables, soup, sake, beer and sorbet-ice cream. They were teribbly sweet, polite and extremely nice.

Japan is splendid, the nature in Hokkaido is breath-taking and the people are kawaii.

Day eight, from Kuchiro to Shiaroi, 4juli 2013.

The sweet couple made us soba for breakfast because I said I ate soba everyday. When their daughter arrived she looked shocked seeing foreign strangers having breakfast with her parents!

We catched a ride from a man that went fishing and by several (business)men that didn’t speak any English, we ended the day with a ride from construction workers who had the greatest fun. When it poured and we said we wanted to camp, they called around for camping-spots and dropped us off at a motel/onsen with an East-European vibe to it in Shiaroi.

Day nine, back to Aomori, 5- 6juli 2013.

The weather got bad, we drove the whole day and arrived in Toya where we looked around for a bit, after that we catched a ride from two insanely sweet grannies that gave us beancookies. We tried to catch a ride to Hakodate in the evening without any luck and slept in a little watch-house with catposters in it.

The next morning we got a lift from a man that, before he drove to Hakodate, had to do some business. He turned out to be a funny and flattering ladiesman, he treat us lunch, chocolat and drinks. We drove to his office, he gave us a tour through Hakodate and ended on a little mountain with view over the city. After some hot chocolatmilk he stopped me when I wanted to get in the car, told David that I was a lady and demonstratively opened the car-door for me. When we drove down the mountain he stopped the car, looked passed me out of my car-window and said in broken English  “Sakura San, it’s beautiful eh?”, I looked out of the window and answered “O wow, yes, it’s beautiful!’, then he said “no…… youu!”.

David and I couldn’t stop laughing after which he said to David “you see David, Sakura San is a lady and happy now!”,  in the end he wanted to pay us a hotel but we friendly rejected the offer.

That night we took the ferry back to Aomori.

We found out that the only way to thank Japanese people for their friendliness is to buy them ice-cream! For almost every person that gave us a ride, we bought ice-cream to show our gratitude because we couldn’t ‘force’ other things on them.

Day ten, from Aomori to Yamagata, 7 juli 2013

In Aomori we got picked up by a woman with her little son that brought us to some farmers-market along the high road and we had amazing cherries and bananas for breakfast. It became a whole day driving to Yamagata: a few short rides after which a man that called us ‘his son and daughter’ gave us a lift and treated us on chocolat and drinks. Our way back to Tokyo went alongside the north-westcoast of Honshu,.

After that we catched a ride from a man on his pension that was roadtripping throughout Japan with his van for five weeks: he brought us to Mt. Haguro, the smallest of the three sacred mountains in Yamagata. It was a pity there was a language-barrier, because I could see/feel that this man really wanted to talk to us.

We ‘climbed’ Mt. Haguro that evening and camped in a little bower on the mountain.

Day eleven, from Yamagata to Tokyo, 8 Juli 2013

In the morning we descended mt. Haguro on our way to the highest of the three sacred Mountains: Mt. Gassan(1900m). We asked the first car we saw for a ride to the eighth station,  from there on we started hiking up the foggy mountain and after two hours we reached the temple on top.

After some warnings about the bad weather we started descending to the third mountain: Mt. Yudono. Everything went well until we arrived at a steep ice-plattern where we constantly slipped and fell, the only thing I could hold on to was a rope. It was foggy, David had cut his hand because of inexplicable reason when we put foot on ‘normal land’ after after 300metres. There we met a tourgroup of elder Japanese hikers with, ofcourse, advanced hike- equipment. They treated Davids hand laughed about us.

We decided to follow the tourgroup to a skilift 200m further and met a hiker that offered us a ride to his hometown Yamagata. After being treated for lunch and delicious cherries he decided to drive us to the tollroad in Sendai instead of Yamagata.

After five minutes along the tollroad in Sendai we got our last lift of a truckdriver that took us to a suburb of Tokyo.

On 00:30o’clock our great trip full breath-taking rough nature and terribly sweet and open-hearted Japanese was finished!

Categories: Daytrips, Must read, Must see, Stories about Japan, Things to do | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What to read: A brief history of kawaii

A new book explores Japan’s obsession with all things cute

A brief history of kawaii

Anyone with even the slightest interest in modern Japanese culture will probably have stumbled across the term ‘kawaii’ by now. Though it roughly translates as ‘cute’ in English, it’s a concept that seems to encapsulate so much more than that: from the fashionable streets of Harajuku to the big-eyed mascots that watch over Tokyo’s wards, it’s practically inescapable. As Manami Okazaki writes in a new book on the subject: ‘You are just as likely to hear a table, car, building, doughnut or plane referred to as kawaii – and in Japan, quite often, the most banal things are cute.’ In Kawaii! Japan’s Culture of Cute (Prestel), Okazaki and photographer Geoff Johnson explore the phenomenon from its simple origins right up to its modern day manifestations of sweet sweets, cutesy cosplay and kimono-wearing cats, stopping along the way for interviews with the likes ofFRUiTS editor Shoichi Aoki, Gloomy creator Mori Chack and Goth-loli model Rin Rin. In this exclusive extract, Keiko Nakahara, curator of Tokyo’s Yayoi-Yumeji Museum, delves back to when the trend first started a century ago…

Kurumi-chan illustration by manga artist Katsuji Matsumoto. Photo: Geoff Johnson

Keiko Nakamura, curator, Yayoi-Yumeji Museum

In Japan, there are kawaii items everywhere you look. Any product you can think of has a kawaii equivalent waiting coquettishly in its box for a cute-obsessed customer to come along and take it home. Where does this culture come from? The Yayoi-Yumeji Museum, which is made up of two spaces, the Yayoi Museum and Takehisa Yumeji Museum, is dedicated to girls’ magazine illustrators. It hosts many exhibitions each year, with the goal of promoting knowledge about kawaii’s rich history.

What does kawaii mean exactly?
It is the appeal of adolescence, when one is not yet an adult. Kawaii things are usually soft, bright, round and small. They aren’t aggressive or belligerent, they give you peace of mind and a sense of security. Originally, the word was used to describe people who were beneath you. It was acceptable to use it when referring to objects, but you wouldn’t use it for your superiors or schoolmates. But since the mid-’80s girls have generally preferred to be called kawaii rather than pretty.

What are the historical roots of kawaii culture?
I consider 1914 the birth year of kawaii in Japan. That’s when illustrator Yumeji Takehisa opened a shop in Nihonbashi that sold numerous goods aimed at schoolgirls – what we now refer to as ‘fancy goods’. Items that were desirable at the time included woodblock prints, embroidery, cards, illustrated books, umbrellas, dolls and kimono collars. Up until then, there hadn’t really been any shops that were aimed at a particular clientele based on age or gender, but the customers of this store were mostly young women. At the time, of course, they weren’t using the term ‘fancy goods’, but komamono.

Takehisa was influenced by foreign cultures, and his goods showed an aesthetic meeting of East and West. For example, he designed coloured paper that he decorated with drawings of poisonous mushrooms. At the time, in Japan, that wasn’t done, but in the West in the early 1900s poisonous mushrooms appeared on cards or in illustrated books. He also designed chiyogamipaper with motifs such as umbrellas and matchsticks (pictured). At the time, chiyogamiwas usually printed with traditional yuzenpatterns, so his thinking was very innovative and a lot of people came to copy him. Takehisa placed importance on the cuteness of his designs and referred to them as kawaii. However, this is a rare example of the word being used at the time, as it wasn’t a commonly used word, as it is now.

Takehisa was seen as an innovator: he had a real talent for doing things no one was doing and making them popular. For example, he would embroider strawberries or flowers into kimono collars. The kimono itself was really drab at the time, so haneri collars were really important. Nowadays, these collars are white, but back then they were the focal point of the kimono, and they were made to be as conspicuous as possible. The orthodox motifs were chrysanthemums or sakura – things such as strawberries were totally unheard of and people were astounded.

How have Japanese notions of beauty changed over time?
If you compare the work of Takehisa and the painter Ryushi Kawabata, their notions of what constitutes beauty are very different. Takehisa’s illustrations look cute in comparison to Kawabata’s work because there is a roundness to them – especially the eyes. Kawabata paints eyes in the shape that is common in Japanese classical painting; having small eyes and a slender physique was considered to be the ideal. Round eyes were traditionally seen as vulgar, although the ideal changed with foreign contact. Artists began to follow Takehisa’s style, and one of these was Junichi Nakahara, who drew eyes very large. He introduced the idea that girls on paper didn’t have to replicate reality.

The Great Kanto earthquake happened in 1923, and Tokyo was obliterated. From that time, Takehisa’s popularity declined and various designers became prominent, although at the time they weren’t called designers – they were called zuanka, and were all influenced by Takehisa. Kaichi Kobayashi, from Kyoto, who draws quite mature looking images, was one of these designers. He made envelopes and letter paper for schoolgirls.

What were these letter sets used for?
They were becoming increasingly important items for schoolgirls. Before the Taisho era [1912-26], girls went to elementary school and then got married or went to work, but during this period more girls continued their education. They were generally from upper middle-class families and had a lot of spare time, which they spent writing letters. Meeting up with boys was strictly forbidden at girls’ schools, so they would play games where they would write love letters to their classmates instead, or to girls they looked up to or thought were cute – almost every day! At the time, of course, there was no internet, so letter sets became very important and were the hit item of the era.

Playing cards by manga artist Katsuji Matsumoto. Photo: Geoff Johnson

People who followed directly from Takehisa’s trend included artists such as Nakahara, who opened a goods shop called Himawariya [sunflower], and Katsuji Matsumoto, who was active from the beginning of the Showa era [1926-89]. Matsumoto is thought to be the originator of shojo manga in Japan, and Kurukuru Kurumi-chan the first example of it. The protagonist, Kurumi-chan, is considered the first character icon. There were Kurumi-chan kisekai dolls [dress-up paper dolls] and stickers, as well as postcards that were meant to encourage troops during the war. The story itself is really quite simple: Kurumi is a five-year-old who is always merry, and hence loveable. It is uncomplicated, and audiences today might wonder why it was so popular.

In the ’50s and ’60s a lot of fancy goods came on the market as Japan’s economy grew. There were improvements in raw materials and technological advances. Directly after the war there was a baby boom, and, as these babies grew up to be teenagers, the market for goods aimed at this age group increased.

Rune Naito’s name comes up a lot in reference to kawaii culture. How influential is his work?
He popularised the word ‘kawaii’. When you look at his drawings, the ratio of body length to the size of the head suggests the proportions of a very little girl. The facial features are those of a newborn baby, with a large, round head. The distance from the hairline to the eyebrows is really long, giving the face a large forehead, and the nose and mouth are really small. His work was initially seen as a bit weird, but became very popular.

Prior to this era, Japanese women had to mature and become adults quickly because poverty was rampant, and people were encouraged to have a lot of children to provide a labour force and recruits for the army. In fact, it was common for families to have between seven and ten kids. When the men went to war, the women had to work. In the mid-1950s the guys went back to work and the girls didn’t have to grow up so fast.

Handkerchiefs designed by Rune Naito. Photo: Geoff Johnson

When did seminal shojo manga artists come into the picture?
Artists such as Masako Watanabe and Macoto Takahashi, who drew gorgeous, opulent images, became the most influential people in terms of manufacturing goods. Ado Mizumori was also hugely influential, separating her work from its predecessors by adding a touch of eroticism to the cuteness. For example, her characters had large, round bottoms and appeared in kissing scenes. You could say this was the beginning of ero-kawaii [erotic cute]. From there, the notion of kawaii branched off in different directions, including kimo-kawaiishibu-kawaii, and otona-kawaii. Perhaps it’s because of these sub genres that Japan didn’t grow bored of the notion of kawaii and it continues today.

How did Sanrio goods become explosively popular?
From the mid-’60s to the ’70s, manga such as Candy Candy and Sailor Moon were very important, as were dolls such as Licca-chan. In the ’80s, Tokyo Disneyland opened and sold many goods, making it common for everyone to have at least one Disney item in their house. The birth of Hello Kitty in 1974 was a landmark event too. Though Sanrio had been around previously, selling strawberry-themed goods or Ado Mizumori products, nothing came close to the Hello Kitty boom.

Why were so many goods produced during this time?
This was connected to the oil and dollar crisis [due to the 1973 Arab oil embargo]. Up until then, the general goods industry had been aimed at exports to America, but because of the economic climate of the time they had to focus on the domestic market instead. The success of Hello Kitty led to the realisation that if you made something cute, it would sell. As a result, various companies jumped on the goods-manufacturing bandwagon.

When the economic bubble burst, Japanese people had less disposable income and wanted to buy inexpensive things, so 100-yen shops started up. A lot of fancy goods came to be manufactured just for this market, and, because of this, they came to be seen as kitsch and cheap. Before this generation, it was upper-class girls who had bought kawaii, but now everyone could have inexpensive fancy goods. At one point the industry even wanted to rebrand them ‘variety goods’, but, unsurprisingly, that idea didn’t take off. Since then, there has been a stream of hit characters, such as Tarepanda from San-X, and similar companies continue to make more and more kawaii items.

This is an excerpt from Kawaii: Japan’s Culture of Cute by Manami Okazaki and Geoff Johnson, available now via Amazon Japan and at major bookstores. Republished with permission.

See for further details

Masako Watanabe’s classic kawaii girls in ‘Venus’, 1955-65. Photo: Geoff Johnson

Categories: history of Japan, Japanese customs, Must read, Stories about Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What to read: Sushi & Beyond, about the gastronomical pleasures Japan has on offer

In 2008, British food writer Michael Booth embarked on a journey deep into the heart of Japanese food culture. The outcome of his three-month sojourn, a memoir titled “Sushi & Beyond,” follows Booth and his young family from Hokkaido to Kyushu as they seek out gastronomic experiences that range from the sublime (dinner at Mibu, the cultish supper club in Ginza frequented by top chefs from around the world) to the bizarre (a meal featuring whale penis, followed by whale ice cream).

Originally released in 2010, the book met with acclaim in the West, and now the Japanese translation (“Eikoku Ikka Nihon wo Taberu”), which was published in April, is proving to be a hit in Japan as well.

Previously indifferent to a national cuisine he’d dismissed as “dull” and “all about appearance,” Booth emerges from this encounter a complete convert. He describes the flavor of crabs from Hokkaido as “sensuous to the point of perversion” and when I ask about the Japanese foods he misses in Copenhagen, where he lives, he rattles off a list of favorite dishes: kushi-katsu (skewers of breaded, fried pork and other foods), yakitori and shiokara (fermented squid entrails). “I love it all, because the Japanese really know how to work their umami,” he says.

The scientific understanding of umami, and the way Japanese chefs have learned to maximize flavor without adding calorie-rich ingredients such as butter or cream, hold a particular fascination for Booth. He uses the word umami frequently and utters it enthusiastically, with the second syllable stressed, in a cadence that mirrors the pronunciation of “amazing.”

The purported health benefits of the Japanese diet, coupled with concerns about his physical condition, had prompted him to undertake the book project in the first place: Three years in Paris, where he’d studied at Le Cordon Bleu, had elevated his cholesterol levels and, he writes, “for every Michelin star I had sampled, it seemed that I had added one of the company’s tires to my waist.”

His trip through Japan has changed his eating habits. Since writing the book, he’s reduced his meat intake, started cooking more fish and vegetables and has even taken up gardening. “I’m also trying to eat more varieties of fish,” he says. “In the West, we usually only eat four or five kinds.” At the home of housewife Etsuko Shinobu, Booth was impressed to discover that “in traditional domestic cooking (in Japan), people try to eat around 30 different vegetables a day.”

Booth sums up the insights he gained into Japanese food culture in four points: hypersensitive awareness of the seasons; the persistence of local food traditions; the embrace of various textures in food — “from the crunchy to the mealy, spongy and chewy”; and the fact that fermentation plays a surprisingly large role in Japanese cuisine. While none of these observations will strike the typical Japanese reader as especially illuminating, Booth’s intrepid curiosity and the breadth of his experience appeal to audiences in Japan as well as abroad.

Few of us will ever dine at Mibu, and even fewer will have the opportunity to massage a cow on a wagyū farm, but we can all live — and eat — vicariously through “Sushi & Beyond.”

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Books to read this summer

If you are coming to Japan or if you are just interested in the country, the culture, the history and the people, here are some books to read this summer to get you in the ‘Japan mood’.




A Novel of Youth Spent at War

By Hiroyuki Agawa; translated by Lawrence Rogers

An autobiographical novel published by Hiroyuki Agawa in 1949, this translation gives you access to “a surprising historical document as well as a moving account of the cost of militarism and defeat” (The New Yorker). Writer Agawa tells in this fictionalized memoir of his induction into the Imperial Navy, his work as a code-breaker in China, and the effects of Japan’s final capitulation.

Kurodahan Press, 2013, 241pp, buy on Amazonbuy for Kindle)



By Sarah Dobbs

English writer Dobbs’ first novel is set in England and Tokyo, and follows the separate adult lives of an English and Japanese woman connected by a childhood friendship with a murdered deaf boy. Described as a “cross-cultural literary thriller,” Killing Daniel was launched last autumn at the Unthank Literary Festival in Norwich.

Unthank Books, 2012, 306pp, buy on Amazonbuy for Kindle



By Simon Alexander Collier

At a time of upheaval when the Japanese market has just been opened up to foreign commerce, a young British diplomat named Milligan plies his trade while battling a weakness for women and booze. Collier, a former British diplomat in Japan, wrote this rambunctious historical novel from his home in Tokyo where he continues to reside.

Createspace, 2012, 337pp, buy from Amazonbuy for Kindle



By Andrez Bergen

The narrator, who “suspects he’s a dead man,” undertakes a sake-soaked purgatorial tour through 20th-century Japanese history with a ghostly geisha and a corrupt millionaire. This is the second novel by Melbourne-born Bergen, who is also a journalist, photographer, musician, and DJ.

Perfect Edge Books, 2012, 254pp, buy from Amazon



By Charlie Canning

Seven juvenile offenders walk the pilgrim’s route of 88 temples in Shikoku as they consider their future place in society. Billed as “The Seven Samurai meets The Fugitive for young adults,” this is the debut novel of Canning, who taught English for ten years in Japan before enrolling in the creative writing PhD program at the University of Adelaide.

Outskirts Press, 2012, 205pp, buy on Amazonbuy for Kindle



By Andrew Clare

Tokyo, 1953. Lieutenant Harvey Brice of US intelligence is found with a bullet in his head, and his discovery promises anything but a routine case for CIA agent Ralph Carnaby. This noir thriller takes in crime and conspiracy during the US occupation in an alternative-history imagining akin to Robert Harris’ Fatherland. Author Clare is a former Royal Marine and works at an international law firm in Tokyo.

Kurodahan Press, 2013, 314pp, buy on Amazon




Political and Policy Change in Post-Fukushima Japan

Edited by Dominic Al-Badri and Gijs Berends

The co-editors both worked for the EU Delegation to Japan at the time of the 3/11 disasters, and brought together this collection of essays to explore shifts in Japanese politics and policy making two years on. Published by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies in Copehagen, the book’s contributors include policy experts and Tokyo diplomats.

NIAS Press, 2013, 192pp, buy on Amazon



By Shawn Bender

With Japanese taiko drumming now popular around the world, cultural anthropologist Bender looks at the percussive art’s origins in post-war Japan. He explores the activity as a new way for Japanese people to associate communally and observes how practices cast light on national conceptions of race, gender and the body.

University of California Press, 2012, 259pp, buy on Amazonbuy for Kindle

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From here to Tokyo: a story about two adventurers’ cycling trip to Japan

(For an English translation, please scroll down)

Cherwin & Sjakoera on their trip around the world

Cherwin & Sjakoera on their trip around the world

Dit keer een verhaal over Sjakoera en Cherwin over hun fietstocht van Nederland naar Japan.

Op 7 januari 2012 vertrokken wij, Cherwin van Meeuwen (22 jaar, voorheen korps marinier) en Sjakoera Jongenelen (21 jaar), vanuit het dorpje Ridderkerk op de fiets naar de wereldstad Tokio. We waren op dit idee gekomen door een krantenknipsel over een Japanner die na zijn studie terugfietste naar zijn Japan vanuit Berlijn. Om 03:00u ’s nachts begonnen we, de eerste 150 km te fietsen, nog niet echt beseffend hoe onze wereldreis zich zou vormen of welke route we zouden nemen.

In Duitsland stond er langs de meeste delen van de Rijn ‘hochwasser’ waardoor we gedwongen werden om de heuvels door te fietsen. In Augsburg begonnen de eerste hevige sneeuwvlokjes neer te dwarrelen waardoor een Duits gezinnetje ons ‘krank!’ noemden toen we afscheid van ze namen om onze weg naar München te vervolgen.

Nadat we door Italië waren geraasd, werden we aan de grens van Slovenië verwelkomd door mannen die ons appels, worst en kaas meegaven.

In Kroatië maakten we voor het eerst kennis met

‘Bora’. Dit is een wind die ontstaat boven de Balkanhoogvlakte en wordt gekanaliseerd door de bergtoppen waardoor plaatselijke windstoten tot wel 180km/u kunnen ontstaan. Daar fiets je dan, op een weg langs de kust naast een afgrond met windstoten die je wegblazen. We werden letterlijk van onze fietsen afgeblazen de struiken in.

Door de plensregen in Albanië met kleine kinderen die ons verwelkomend “f*ck your mother” toeriepen, enorme plassen die de tevens zo enorme kuilen in de weg verborgen (eerste slagjes in de wielen), constant getoeter en het enorme aantal overreden dieren langs de wegen, arriveerden we in Montenegro, waar de

kustroute weer prachtig was met witte stranden langs de bergen.

Griekenland was zwaar. Direct over de grens meteen een berg opstompen, mooi, maar niet op de fiets. Alhoewel, zodra je naar beneden raast door ’t prachtige landschap zijn al je inspanningen ’t waard geweest.

In Turkije dachten we ’t laatste beetje sneeuw te hebben gezien totdat we arriveerden in Georgië. In de zomer zou het daar vast prachtig zijn, maar wij waren alleen maar bezig niet uit te glijden over de sneeuw en het ijs.

De natuur in Armenië was adembenemend mooi.Enorme bergen, bepakt met een dik pak onaangeroerd sneeuw. We waren, ondanks de kou enorm gelukkig in de prachtige krachtige natuur.

Iran was toch enorm spannend voor ons, alle waarschuwingen uit Nederland en positieve aanmoedigingen uit Armenië in ons achterhoofd, fietsten we uit de sneeuw de grens over.

Na een soepele grensovergang fietsten we door een valleitje richting Tabriz, het kwik steeg van 4°C in de bergen in Armenië, naar 31°C in de open vlaktes.

Langzaam maar zeker verdwenen onze jassen en warme kleding. Iran bleek een land vol vriendelijke geïnteresseerde mensen; tot bijna irritant aan toe bleef men ons aanhouden en bood een slaapplaats, voedsel of een lift aan. We kregen watermeloenen van wel 13kg mee, alsof we het niet al zwaar genoeg hadden.

Na 2.097 km door Iran te hebben gefietst, werd  het tijd om de grens van Turkmenistan over te gaan.

Bij de grens waren we stiekem aan het wachten tot het donker werd om onze tent op te zetten. Immers, je mag niet overal zomaar kamperen. Helaas werden we ‘betrapt’ door een politieagent. Hij nam ons mee naar een hotel, maar dat paste niet in ons plan. We wilden alleen bij mensen thuis of in ons ‘4*sterren- tentje’ slapen. De eigenaar van het hotel bood ons een gratis overnachting aan, die we als echte Nederlanders

natuurlijk niet afsloegen!

Na een warme douche- en driegangen menu werden we de volgende ochtend wakker gemaakt met ontbijt op bed!

Het was een opluchting om in Turkmenistan weer

korte kleding te mogen dragen en de verandering in

kledingstijl te zien. Het is een land vol kamelen maar een heel stuk heter dan in Iran, wat ons fietstempo onwijs versloomde op een visum van 5 dagen voor 550km!

Na Oezbekistan waar we alle visums voor de ove-

rige ‘stans’ hadden geregeld arriveerden we in één van onze favoriete landen; Tadzjikistan! Prachtige bergen, natuur, rivieren, pittoreske kampeerplekken; het was allemaal adembenemend.

Het was niet erg om de bergen op te moeten stompen aangezien ’t uitzicht alles goedmaakte. Toch werden we blij van een tunnel op 2200m hoogte waar we vervolgens niet doorheen mochten fietsen, aangezien de weg een rivier was vol kuilen, ladders en ventilators midden op de weg.

We werden samen met onze fietsen een vrachtwagen in gezet en kregen een lift door de tunnel, waar de chauffeur weer hielp verscheidene ‘Opel astra’s uit kuilen te sleuren (je woont in Tadzjikistan, 94% gebergte, koop dan een verdomde jeep?!).

In Kyrgyzstan was de natuur even prachtig; groene bergen maar dan met grote blauwe meren in plaats van rivieren. Enorm veel schapen, paarden, paardenmelk, yurts en ranzig ruikende kuilen in de grond met plankjes waar schijt op is ‘gemorst’ erboven als toiletten. We zagen Kyrgyzstan als een voorproefje van hoe Mongolië eruit zou zien.

Voordat we Mongolië konden bereiken, moesten we eerst nog door het rijkste van de ‘stans’; Kazachstan. Omdat we dachten dat Kazachstan net zo’n armoedige grensovergang zou hebben als de andere ‘-stans’ dachten we dat, als we zelf onze visumingangsdatum zouden vervroegen in onze paspoorten, ze ’t vast niet zouden merken. Helaas was niks minder waar; vergrootglas, scans, urenlange ondervragingen en heel wat computerwerk volgden en uiteindelijk gingen we het land binnen op ons visum van Kyrgyzstan. Na Kazachstan gingen we op weg naar het land van de Rode Draak; China.

In het westen van China maakten we kennis met het drukke verkeer en wegen zonder vluchtstroken. Zwaar beladen vrachtwagens raasden op een afstand van 30cm langs ons heen, waardoor wij zowat van de wegen werden geblazen. Ook blijven de chauffeurs er doorrijden met lekke banden wat wegen vol metaalsprintertjes veroorzaakte, die ons maar liefst 16 lekke banden bezorgden op een route van 480km.

Ons visum voor China was maar voor 30 dagen. Daarom besloten we via Mongolië naar Beijing te rijden.

Nadat we vanuit China de grens met Mongolië hadden bereikt, vonden de grenswachters het belangrijker om hun worstelheld aan te moedigen tijdens de Olympische Spelen. Met hun ogen op de televisie geplakt, stempelden ze ons zo snel mogelijk in en voordat we het wisten stonden we alweer buiten.

We waren blij China uit te zijn, maar wisten niet dat we aan het begin stonden van het meest saaie- en oneindige deel van onze gehele fietstocht. De eerste dag was mooi, we hadden de zon die ons verwarmde, de wind in de rug, adelaars in de lucht en niemand in de verste heuvels te bekennen. Het heerlijke zonnetje veranderde al snel en de modderige wegen dwongen ons een bus te nemen naar de hoofdstad Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolië heeft geen infrastructuur; enkel modderpaden waarvan je moest weten dat ze bestonden want ook wegwijzers waren er niet.

Met enorm veel gezeik kregen we onze fietsen mee in een mini- busje waar we extra voor moesten betalen, in plaats van de grote tourbus waar we al tickets voor hadden gekocht. In het busje werden nog 21 extra personen gepropt en vervolgden we onze rit van twee volle dagen. Het busje was eigenlijk bedoeld voor maar 12 personen, maar daar nemen ze het daar niet zo nauw mee.

Onderweg was de enige verandering in het landschap de kleur van het gras.

Na de vreselijke tocht waarbij het busje in de nacht een paar keer vastzat in de modder, door een rivier getrokken werd en een lekke band kreeg waren we er helemaal klaar mee. We verbroken dan ook ons record door 168km op een dag te fietsen richting Beijing, China.

Vanuit Beijing ging Cherwin ‘nog even’ naar Noord Korea. Even op een uitstapje zónder fiets. Noord Korea bleek een schitterend land; de natuur nog echt en ongerept, de zeer strenge voorwaardes en een escort van vijf agenten gaven je het gevoel dat je ergens was waar je eigenlijk niet mocht zijn en dat gaf een enorme kick. Na vijf dagen zat het er helaas weer op, na het nodige gezien te hebben en zwaar onder de indruk van de enorme ‘Arirang’-dansvoorstelling, (de grootste dansvoorstelling van de wereld, om de verjaardag van Kim Il- Sung te vieren),  was het weer tijd om terug te keren naar Beijing.

Om het drukke verkeer in Beijing te vermijden begonnen we ‘s nachts te rijden naar Tianjin, 150km verder, waar we in de ochtend de ferry zouden nemen naar Zuid Korea. We hadden eten vergeten mee te nemen, en moesten de hele tocht op droge noodles met glaasjes kraanwater doen.

Op de ferry naar Zuid Korea raakten we aan de praat met een Koreaanse monnik die ons uitnodigde bij hem thuis te komen logeren in het zuiden van het land.

Onderweg door Zuid Korea maakte de zon plaats voor zware bewolking en regen als gevolg van een tyfoon. We fietsten we door ondergelopen dorpjes en voelden de paniek in de lucht hangen. Uiteindelijk raakten wij zelf ook ingesloten door het water. Er was geen uitweg meer mogelijk. Zelfs de politie wist niet wat te doen, terwijl het water langzaam bleef stijgen.

We moesten door en besloten om tot onze borst door het water heen te waden tot we een droge plek vonden. Daardoor waren we compleet de weg kwijt, maar met ons kompas wisten we toch de juiste richting te vinden.

Aangekomen bij de monnik konden we onze spullen

laten drogen. Onze waterdichte fietstassen bleken vol kleine gaatjes te zitten. Van hem kregen we nieuwe

kleding en vervolgens fietsten we door naar Busan voor de veerboot naar Japan.

Binnen tien maanden hebben we Japen bereikt.  Het voelt raar, maar ook goed. De tijd is zo snel voorbij gegaan.

24  September arriveerden we in Fukuoka, Japan. Van daaruit zijn we naar ‘t zuiden gefietst richting Nagasaki en hebben een klein rondje gemaakt op het zuidelijke eiland Kyūshū. Hierna vervolgden we onze weg langs de noordkust van het eiland Honshū naar Tsuwano, om vervolgens de zuidkust te volgen richting Osaka en Kyoto, waar we een parade en een vuurfestival in Kurama hebben meegemaakt.

Na Mt. Fuji op te hebben gefietst en daarna naar de top te zijn geklommen, vervolgden we de tocht naar ons ‘echte’ einddoel; Nicki en Mun Yoshihara, Sjakoera’s nicht met haar man in Tokio.

Door hun warm onthaal voelden we ons snel thuis. Mun en Nicki hebben hun overheerlijke kookkunsten al laten proeven en zijn heel behulpzaam; na tien maanden enkel spaghetti, rijst, noodles en leven in een tent is dat wel even wennen.

Na de 1.172 km door Japan te hebben gefietst staat onze teller op 18.463 km door 24 landen en vinden we het wel prima de hele dag in bed te liggen; langzaam plannen te maken voor de terugreis.

This time a story about two heroes Sjakoera and Cherwin about their amazing journey cycling from The Netherlands to Japan.

On January 7th 2012 we, Cherwin van Meeuwen (22 years old, former marine corps) and Sjakoera Jongenelen (21 years old), left from our home town Ridderkerk to cycle to the cosmopolitan Tokyo. We came by the idea from reading a newspaper clipping about a Japanese guy that cycled back to Japan after he graduated university in Berlin. At 03:00 AM we started on our first trek of 150 km no yet realizing what shape or form our trip around the world would take or what route to take.

In Germany along most parts of the Rhine rive there was ‘hochwasser’ (high water) which forced us to cycle through the hills. When we arrived at our first guest home, we told them we thought Germany had high mountains (The Netherlands is completely flat so we are not used to hills of any kind) and our hostess laughed at us and told us it were merely hills we cycled through and that there was more up ahead that was way worse than these measily hilss! In Augsburg the first snow flakes started to fall which led to another German family calling us ‘krank!’ (crazy) for cycling in such bad weather, but regardless we were on a schedule and decided to go ahead towards Munich.

After we had raced through the border with Italy, we were welcomed in Slovenia by men with apples, cheese and sausages. The people there are so kind and welcoming!

In Croatia we first experienced ‘Bora’. (Not to be confused with the character Borat) This is a special gale force wind that is caused when wind high above the Balkan plains is channelized through the mountain tops which leads to gale winds of 180km per hour. I can tell you, it is no fun trying to cycle while vicious winds are trying to push you off the mountains. We actually literally got blown off our bikes and into the bushes. That is how hard the wind blew. Like Mary Poppins minus the umbrella and the funny songs.

Through torrential rains we crossed Albania with little kids welcoming us with “f*ck your mother” through enormous puddles that hid even bigger holes in the road. Here we got our first kink in our wheels, through constant honking of cars, seeing dead carcasses along the roads until finally we arrived in Montenegro, where the coast line was gorgeous with white beaches along the mountains. It was such a relieve after all the filth and horror we experienced in Albania to finally see the beauty that Europe has to offer.

Greece was tough. Right after the border we immediately had to go up a mountain. The view was breath taking but we could not enjoy it as we were so tired trying to climb that retched mountain. On the other hand, as soon as we went down all our troubles went away and we let the air rush past our faces and dry up our sweat, it was heaven on earth. Finally we could appreciate our surroundings and thought it had all been worth wild.

In Turkey we thought we had seen the last of the snow, until we arrived in Georgia. We were told it should be wonderful there in summer, but when we were there all we did was try to stay upright in the patches of snow and black ice.

Nature in Armenia was breathtakingly pretty. Huge mountains packed with the whitest of virgin show, even though we were chilled to the bone, we did not feel a thing while cycling through this gorgeous landscape.

Iran was very exciting. We were warned by everyone before leaving, but received some positive encouragements in Armenia, so with that in mind we cycled through the snow across the border.

After an easy border crossing, we came to a little valley towards Tabriz, the temperature slowly climbed from 4°C in the mountains of Armena to a sweltering 31°C in the open plains.

Slowly but surely our coats disappeared in our luggage bags and our warm winter wear too. Iran turned out to be a country full of nice and interested people. Naturally they are not exactly accustomed to foreigners cycling through their country with heaps of luggage so we were stopped often to ask us whether we needed a ride, some food or a place to sleep. Meanwhile people would ask us about our journey and why we were in Iran. In the end we were even offered a watermelon by one guy that was at least 13 kg. So sweet but we already had so much weight to carry! Still we felt bad refusing as the guy did not appear too well off either so we thanked him profusely and continued on our way.

After cycling for 2.097 km through Iran alone, it became time to cross the border of Turkmenistan.

At the border we were lying in wait until it became dark to pitch our tent. It is not allowed to camp just anywhere. Unfortunately we got caught by the police and had to leave. He took us to a hotel, but it did not fit our plan. Our goal is to do this trip while spending the least amount of money. A hotel would be too big of a bite in our budget. Still the owner of the hotel felt sorry for us and offered us to stay in the hotel for free! As true Dutch people who love everything free, we could not resist the lure of a hot shower and a decent bad and gladly accepted.

Afteer a warm shower and a three course meal (a rarety for us since leaving our native village) we were woken up the next day with breakfast in bed no least! Words can not express how happy that made us!

It was a relief to be able to wear short clothes again in Turkmenistan. Although the weather had been warm in Iran, we decided to wear only long sleeved shirts and pants and for Sjakoera a scarf around her head in order to stay within local customs. Of course we realize we are a guest in the countries we visit and we do not wish to offend anyone and adapt ourselves wherever possible.

Still it was nice to be able to get rid of the hot jeans and long shirts we’d been wearing shortly before and to gape at the local population and their difference in clothing style.  It’s a country filled with camels and a lot hotter than Iran, so this really slowed us doen. We only were able to cycle 550 km in five days.

After Oezbekistan where we arranged all our visa for the other ~’stans’ we arrived in one of our most favourite countries; Tadzjikistan! Beautiful mountains, deep blue lakes, fresh air, gorgeous nature, and idyllic camping spots. It was all so breathtaking!

We even did not mind having to climb up all those mountains since the view made up for everything. Still we did feel a wave of relieve hit us when we arrived at a tunnel at 2200m  high up the mountains. We were not allowed to cycle through this tunnel as it had ditches and putholes everywhere and old fans and ladders were left right there in the road even! Finally an excuse not to cycle! We were loaded into a truck together with our bikes and got a ride through the tunnel. Along the way our ‘driver’ helped to pull out several small cars that got stuck in the road. Perhaps when living in such a rugged country which consist of 94% mountainous areas it would be more sensible to buy a friggin’ jeep we thought!

In Kyrgyzstan the nature was splendid as well with grean mountains, large saffire coloured lakes in stead of the rivers we saw before. There were lots of sheep, horses, horse milk yurts and faul smelling holes in the ground coverd by a little shit covered wooden boards that were meant as toilets. Kyrgyzstan gave us some impression of what Mongolia would be like.

Before we could enter Mongolia, we first had to go through the richest of all the ~’stans, namely Kazachstan. We had figured that Kazachstan would be as shabby as all the other border crossings we had been through in the previous countries, so we had falcified our visum hoping they would not notice. Unfortunately the truth was far from it! After hours of painstakingly looking at our passports with magnifying glasses, scans and interrogations and a lot of computer work, we were finally admitted on our other visa from Kyrgyzstan. After Kazachstan we headed for the country of the red dragon; China.

In the western part of China we first experienced the heavy traffic of China. In most other countries there are emergency lanes we could use to cycle on (highways are often times a lot faster than having to go through all the little villages) but in China these emergency lanes were absent. Heavy loaded lorries flew past us with only about 30 cm between us and the, and nearly pushed us off the roads! Drivers also continue to drive even when their tires are flat. This left the road full of shards of metal that left us with 16 flat tires on a road of 480km.

Our visa for Chia was only valid for 30 days, which is why we decided to go through Mongolia to Beijing.  After we reached the border between China and Mongolia, the border patrol thought it more important to cheer on their wrestling hero during the Olympic games than check us properly, so with their eyes glued to the television, the stamped our visa as quickly as possible so they could enjoy the rest of the match. Before we knew it we were back outside and had finally reached Mongolia.

We were very happy to be out of China, but at that point we did not know yet that we were about to reach the most boring and seemingly unending part of our journey so far. The first day we enjoyed the view, the sun was shining and warming our backs, the eagles flew overhead and other than that there was no living thing in sight. The gorgeous weather soon changed and the road turned into muddy sludge so we were forced to take a bus to the nations capital Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolia has no infrastructure, no roads of any kind, only dirt roads ,which are often times not mentioned on maps. Road signs are generally not used either, so you really need to know where you are going if you don’t want to get lost. Fortunately we both had a compass, otherwise it would have been tough to navigate through a country without any discernable land marks.

We faced a lot of hassle when we wanted to take our bikes along on a mini-bus ride. We originally had paid to take our bikes on one of those big touring cars, but we were not allowed to take our bikes along and were instead, refered to this little bus. Of course we had to pay extra while we boarded the little van, another 21 people were squished into a space only meant for 12 people at most. The ride lasted for two whole days so you can imagine our agony along those bumpy roads jam packed between all those extra people. The view along the day did not chance much, only the color of the grass changed from green to brown, occasionally.

After a hellish ride during which the van got stuck in the mud a few times or had to be pushed through an actual river and got a flat tire, we really had had enough. The next day we broke our personal best and cycled in one day 168km on our way to Beijing, China. It was so liberating to finally get out of that smelly bus and be able to feel the wind in our hair again.

From Beijing Cherwin decided to take a ‘little’  side trip to North Korea. For once a trip without the use of his bike! North Korea turned out to be a beautiful country, it’s nature still wild and beautiful. The 5 men strong escort made you feel like you were on a clandestine visit to a place you were actually not allowed to be, this was really thrilling and really gave an extra dimension to the trip. After a mere five days the trip was over, but our group was able to see and experience a lot in such a short time, among which the enormous ‘Arirang’-dance show (the largest dance show in the world for the sole benefit of celebrating the birthday Kim Il- Sung), it was finally time to return to Beijing.

In order to avoid the heavy traffic in Beijing we started cycling at night towards Tianjin, 150km further on, where we were going to take the ferry towards South Korea. We only forgot to bring food so the whole trip to the boat we had to live off dry noodles and tap water!

On the ferry on the way to Korea we got to talking with a Korean monk who invited us to come and join him at his home in the south of the country. We enjoyed talking to him, so we really did not mind to cycle quite a bit out of the way in order to see the monk before heading out to Japan.

While we were cycling through South Korea the beautiful warm sun decided to hide herself behind heavy rain clouds and since a tyfoon had been near we experienced some torrential rain. We cycled through inundated villages and felt the panic in the air. Eventually we too got trapped by the water and there was no way out. Even the police did not know what to do while the water kept on rising.

We needed to go on so we eventually decided to wde through the water so we could reach some dry land. The water came up to our chest and our bikes and luggage were completely drenched. Not to mention ourselves. Because of all the water we really got disoriented since there was not land in sight, but fortunately with the help of our compass we finally managed to wade towards the right direction and find some dry land.

When we reached the monks house, we were able to dry all our things. Our ‘water tight bags’ turned out to be not so water tight after all. Along the way miniature little holes and punctured the bags so all our things were drenched.  The monk was so kind to give us some dry clothes we could keep and after a good nights rest we continued our way to Busan so we could catch the ferry to Japan.

Within 10 months we had finally reached Japen. It felt kind of strange to finally reach your destination, but at the same time we were elated and surprised that time had moved so fast. It seemed like only yesterday, and at the same time an eternity, since we had left our little home village in The Netherlands.

September 24th 2012 we arrived in Fukuoka, Japan. From there we travelled south towards Nagasaki and cycled around in a circle to traverse the souther island of Kyūshū. After this we continued our way along the northern coast of the island Honshū to Tsuwano, and finally we took the southern coastline towards Osaka and Kyoto. Here we witness a special ‘Oiran’ oarade and a fire festival Kurama.

When we reached Mt. Fuji we could not resist and cycled the mountain until we reached the fifth station. At this point the road stops and you can continue to hike to the top. By the time we got there it was early November so officially you are not supposed to climb the mountain anymore. This did not deter us and Cherwin even took his bike with him as we was determined to go to the top and take a picture together with his bike. Unfortunately we were not able to reach the summit as it was really windy and other hikers told us it was too dangerous to proceed to the top, so we both climbed down, together with the bike and continued our trip to our final destination; Nicki and Mun Yoshihara, Sjakoera’s cousin and her husband in Tokyo.

The last time we had been able to stop to freshen up was more than a week ago so when we arrived in Tokyo we really loved the warm welcome we received. It made us feel right at home and after a warm shower and a hot meal we quickly felt better. Mun and Nicki allowed us to enjoy their wonderful cooking and they were so helpful to us. After a diet of solely spaghetti, rice, noodles and having to live in a tent every day, we cannot explain the luxuary of sleeping in a warm bed and having regular meals every day!

After cycling the last stretch of our journey; 1.172 km through the gorgeous landscape of Japan, we are now at 18.463 km through 24 countries and have enjoyed a bit of time relaxing and taking the time to plan for our trip back home. After Japan our ways have split. Cherwin has continued to travel by bike and is now traveling through South East Asia, India and the middle East and will continue his way through Africa and Europe before finally reaching his home village of Ridderkerk. Sjakoera has gone to Indonesia, Australia, Cambodia and Thailand and will go back home overland(route unknown) to her native country The Netherlands.



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