my burogu

How it's going, like.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

BBC Newsnight in North Korea

At the same time I was in North Korea Sue Lloyd Roberts was there making a film for newsnight.
Watch part 1:

Watch part 2:

Now I understand why I'm not a journalist. I was calling our host "guides" rather than "minders". She asked them a lot more difficult questions too.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

North Korea Trip

Why North Korea?

A Mural, Pyongyang

I had some free time and therefore wanted to go on a trip, but didn't want to go too far from Japan. So I looked on the map. Korea is Japan's nearest neighbour and I've never been there, so thought it would be good. But then again, I wanted to do something a bit different and realized North Korea wasn't too much further away. “Why not?”, I thought. So I investigated a little further and found that it was relatively easy to get there, if a touch on the expensive side as you have to go as part of a group tour . But once I'd had the idea, I couldn't let it go and soon found myself booking the trip. Nowadays international brands rule the world economy and big cities all look alike. They all have McDonalds, Starbucks and sell mobile phones. North Korea, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the one country left on earth that doesn't have that. I had to go and see it for myself.

The route.

Later this year, Kayo and I are travelling overland back to the UK from Japan. So I thought I'd make this an adventure too. I took a ferry from Shimonoseki in Japan to Pusan, travelled north through South Korea, then took a ferry from Incheon to Qingdao, China. Then a train to Beijing. From Beijing we flew to Pyongyang and on the reurn journey we took the train back to China. I got off in Dandong, where I sailed down the North Korean coastline to Incheon, took the train back south to Pusan and then returned by overnight ferry to Japan.

View North Korea Trip in a larger map

Day 1
Beijing - Pyongyang

I stayed in Beijing for 3 nights before I left for Pyongyang. On my final night in Beijing I went out for a few drinks. It was really cold when I headed back to my hostel, so I took a taxi. Because of the cold I thought it would be a good idea to run the 200m or so from where the taxi dropped me off along the backstreet to where my hostel was. I fell over. My chin slammed into the concrete and I had a massive graze along my cheek. I was rather dazed and hadn't even realised I was bleeding until a man appeared from nowhere and handed me some tissues. “Oh No”, I thought.

I awoke early the next morning and weighed up my options. I was due at the airport by 11am to meet the tour group, pick up my North Korean Visa and check-in for the 13:00 flight to Pyongyang. I was aware that I should really go to hospital, but definitely didn't have time for that. I found a chemist, bought some gauze and antibacterial cream and then headed to the airport hoping there would be a First-Aid room where someone who knew what they were doing could dress my wounds and I wouldn't look like a total freak when I met the members of my tour. I arrived at the airport terminal around 10am. Fortunately there was a first-aid room. Unfortunately the nurse wouldn't treat me. She said that my injuries were too serious for her and that I had to go to hospital. I explained that I had to catch a flight and had no time to go to hospital, but would duly go at my destination. She agreed to treat me, but made me sign a disclaimer before I left.

I wandered over to the check-in counter feeling a little better about myself but still slightly concerned that I was heading to a country with one of the worst healthcare systems in the world with a nasty injury that would clearly need some more attention over the next few days. It was all my own doing though, so I couldn't complain. After clearing customs I went for some breakfast. I'd not had time to eat anything and ordered some fried rice. I put a small forkful in my mouth but couldn't move my jaw. It was seriously painful. I gingerly finished my plateful of food and went across to board the plane.

I'm no plane spotter so can't tell you much about the technical aspect of the plane. It was, however, like entering a time machine. 70's style décor, 70's styled hostesses (all female) and legroom designed for dwarfs. The overhead lockers had no doors and of course there were no TVs. The plane filled up and I found people watching fascinating; trying to work out what everyone was going to be doing in DPRK. I expected the plane to be filled with mainly tourists, but there were a large proportion of Koreans on the flight too. I was sat next to a Japanese man who said he was going there for work, but didn't say what his business was. I had a window seat and spent my time looking out of the window. It was my 1st view of North Korea. The fields were brown and the houses were few. It all appeared quite normal. As we came in to land, people were still walking around the plane and even as we touched down there was at least one cabin attendant and one passenger walking down the plane. The Japanese guy next to me was bricking himself. So was I, but I hid it a bit better. We landed safely.
The wind was cold as we walked across to the terminal building. Immigration was swift but customs took a bit longer. A varied mix of cars came and went outside the terminal building. From brand new Lexuses & BMWs to 30 Year old Ladas and Volvos.
Pyongyang airport arrivals board.
Pyongyang airport
It was getting on for 6pm by the time we boarded our tour bus to go to Hotel Yangakdoo and the sun was setting over the Pyongyang skyline. Our guides introduced themselves and gave us an outline of the itinerary of our trip. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant (my jaw still very painful) followed by a quick group meeting. I discovered that one of the ladies in our group was a nurse and she very kindly offered to look at my cuts. She re-dressed & cleaned my wounds and reassured me there was nothing too serious to worry about, but that ideally I should be having some stitches in my chin. I went to bed soon after as my face and jaw were throbbing.

Day 2
Pyongyang and The DMZ.

We had a breakfast of omelette, toast and coffee in the hotel restaurant before leaving for the DMZ at 8:00am sharp. We stopped to admire the Arch of Reunification as we left Pyongyang and then headed south towards the border. I took lots of photos of not very much along the way. The farmland looked brown and fertile, but what struck me most was the lack of trees on the mountains. There really were very very few trees. I'd read that they were all cut down during the 90's famine trouble to provide fuel to keep warm in winter. It was such a contrast from the South and here in Japan where the mountains are covered with forest. We saw numerous local people along the way. Many tending to the farmland, some painting concrete walls, others picking up stones and a fair few people doing nothing at all. Maybe they were having a rest, but it was pretty chilly for that, so I have no idea what they were doing.
Our Tour Bus

North Korean Countryside

While we travelled in the bus, our guides told us about North Korea's hopes for reunification. It was heartening to listen to them talking very sincerely about re-unification between the two sides one day. It's just a shame for the people of Korea that it's so so far away and the millions of obstacles that lie between this hope and reality.

We visited the Armistice Hall - the building where the armistice agreement was signed in 1953. It's set in a beautiful and tranquil area, which is ironic considering it's place in history and what it's surrounded by.
Thye building where the Korean war armistice agreement was signed

After that we went to the Joint Security Area where discussions are held nowadays between the 2 sides. We entered the discussion hut, set exactly on the border between North & South and shook hands across the table.
Looking at South Korea from the North
Peace man
My new mate

Like much of the trip, The visit to the JSA was far more relaxed than I expected, the KPA (Korean People's Army) soldier who guided us around being friendly but firm and there were no photograph restrictions. The only slight negative was the speed at which we were ushered round meant no time for dordelling.

We then headed for a visit to a statue of Kim Il Sung in the town of Kaesong, a view across the old traditional Hanok style buildings. Kaesong was the Capital of the Korean Peninsular from 936 – 1392. The town lies South of the 38th Parallel and we were told that the South expected it to become their territory after the war and therefore didn't bomb it. That's the reason there's such a well preserved traditional quarter remaining. Lunch was great – The culinary highlight of the trip. 11 golden bowls of various side dishes, an individual stew/soup, and some delicious Korean rice wine (Soju).

Kaesong City

After lunch we headed back to Pyongyang for a quick tour of USS Pueblo, the captured US “spy ship”. We watched a “documentary” before we toured the ship. It was quite funny and more one sided than a Michael Moore film. The voiceover was done by a Korean chap imitating a BBC announcer from about 1960 with very mixed results.
Our guide around Pueblo
Our guide around USS Pueblo

Next up was the Children's' Palace. We watched a performance of music, song & dance from children aged 6-17. The performance was breathtakingly magnificent. Not a foot put wrong and as professional as anything I've witnessed before. And yet some of these kids are only 6 Years old! It left me with very mixed feelings; How hard are they made to train in order to reach such standards? They can't have much childhood as the training regime must be brutal. But then outside the palace after the performance, I caught sight of a girl having her photograph taken alongside her parents & grandmother. They were all smiles and everyone looked incredibly proud. These children are very highly regarded in their society and will go on to have a privileged lifestyle due to their incredible talents. If we look at our own society, and particularly at our sports stars, I'm not sure it's so much different from say, Serena Williams starting tennis when she was 3 years old, is it?

Dinner was had in a community centre lookalike building. But the food was good and our waitresses performed some birthday songs for Frederick on his 40th. He even got a birthday cake. Our guide, Mr Lim got in on the act and sang us an acapella “Edelweiss”.

After dinner we rushed back to the hotel to catch the end of the fireworks for Kim Il Sung's birthday, the following day. We needn't have hurried as the display was almost never ending and continued for well over an hour. I have no idea how much money was spent (wasted) on these fireworks. Of course, it was spectacular, but in a country with so little, I found it quite depressing. The most spectacular and saddest fireworks I've ever seen. Quite Obscene!.
Fireworks for Kim Il Sung's Birthday, Pyongyang.

Day 3
Kim Il Sung's 98th Birthday Party in Pyongyang

So.... Today was the Big Day. The Great Leader's 98th Birthday. Well, it would have been if he hadn't died in 1994. But the good people of the DPRK weren't about to let that stop the party. And good news for us foreign tourists, too. We were invited!

But before the party started we had a few sights to see. Namely the Arc of Triumph. - No, no. Not L'Arc de Triomph – that's in Paris, you fool. The Arc Of Triumph. OK, so it's almost an exact copy, but the important thing is that it's bigger – by a couple of metres, but bigger all the same. It was built in 1982 to celebrate liberation from Japanese Occupation in 1949. It was a very impressive arch.
The Arc of Triumph, Pyongyang

Next was the biggie! A trip to pay our respects to the great leader at the Mansudae Grand Monument. The MASSIVE statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. We were encouraged to buy some flowers to lay at the statue. I wasn't keen, personally, but I didn't want to offend our guides either. Fortunately for me, some other people in our group bought some flowers for The Big Kim so I didn't have to. We joined the locals on the steps leading up to the statue and lined up in 2 rows. A TV crew came up and filmed us, but because of my facial bandages I was tapped on the shoulder and asked to move to the back row of our group. At least, I hope it was because of the bandages and not because that I'm generally just not fit for TV. Although, now I come to think of it, I've been on the radio a few times, but never on TV. Hmmmmmm...........
People laying flowers for Kim Il Sung's birthday
Kim Il Sungstatue, Our guide Muang Un Byol & Me

Next was another biggie. A trip to Kim Il Sung's mausoleum to see the man himself. This is the building he's on display:
Kim Il Sung's Mauseleum
All marble and a cavernous space with airport style travellators to speed us all up as we walked along the corridors to the mausoleum room. Again, this must have cost a fortune to build. We queued up for an hour or so before we finally made it to the room with his body on display. We lined up on each side of him and were asked to bow at each side of his body but not when facing his feet. 3 bows in all. This was probably the most surreal moment of the whole trip.

Outside the mausoleum building was a gathering of the elite's school children. They were holding an entrance ceremony into “The Workers' Party” for all 9 year olds. I think there were many other ceremonies taking place around the city for children who wanted to join the other political parties. Oh hang on – maybe I'm mistaken.

Me and some lads

We took some photos with the kids and had a little banter as they could say “How are you?” and a couple of other English phrases. They were just like any other group of kids. Shy to begin with, but quick to change and start laughing and joking around.

We had a BBQ lunch in a peaceful park on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Next was a trip to a concert hall to see a performance of North Korean Music performed by a specially invited Orchestra from Seoul. Unfortunately for me, the relentless schedule was catching up with me and much to the amusement of our guide, I dozed off through the first half of the performance.

Next up was a flower festival in honour of Big Mr Kim. It was all very nice, but I'm not really a flowery person, so it didn't interest me that much. A guy from our group signed the visitors book saying “Who would have though politics and botanics could go hand in hand?”

After that we visited a monument for “The Workers Party”. I'm not sure I could ever fit in DPRK society with it's one party politics. I'd be more at home in “The Slackers' Party”, but there's no such thing and I'm definitely too much of a slacker to start the revolution.
Workers party monument
Pyongyang at sunset

We had dinner in a restaurant and then watched the news. Sure enough, we (not me) appeared on the TV as expected. For about 2 seconds.

Back at the hotel we had a few beers in the non-revolving rooftop restaurant and then headed down to the karaoke hall in the basement for a few more. I was hanging out with a Dutch guy who was on about his 6th or 7th visit to DPRK. He even had a prestigious pin badge as a thank you for translating some books into Dutch. We were also hanging out with some crazy drunk Chinese guys, some other tour guides and another North Korean guy who owned a shipping company. This little session was one of the highlights of the trip – though naturally I avoided the karaoke like an illicit supply of uranium.

Day 4
The countryside to the North of Pyongyang

This morning we drove up to a village called Myohyangsan. It took a couple of hours on the empty highway leading north from Pyongyang. First stop was to have a look around an ancient Buddhist Temple, Pohyonsa. It was all very pleasant and we were introduced to one of the monks who lived in the temple. Our guide informed us that there are about 20 monks living in this temple complex. Personally, I felt very sceptical and estimate the number of monks to be about 1. On the way back to Pyongyang our main guide, Mr Lim, informed us that there about 100,000 Buddhist and a similar number of Christians in DPRK.
A north korean monk

Next up was “The International Friendship Exhibition” What do you think that is? I'll explain. It's 2 very very large and extravagant buildings displaying all of the gifts that have been sent to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il over the years. Kim Il Sung's contained over 100 rooms and around 208,000 items while his son's display 68,000 items. There was a digital counter in the foyer giving the exact numbers. Gifts included cars, TVs, plaques, animal skins, tea sets, jewellery, and everything in between. There were even a couple of train carriages received from Lenin & Mao. But I think everyone's favourite was a carved crocodile standing on its hind legs carry a tray of drinks. That was the one item which truly deserved to be on display. We weren't allowed to take photos inside the building, but this is the building:
International Friendship Exhibition

After lunch we headed back to Pyongyang. I sat next to our female guide, Myung Un Byol, on the bus and we talked about music. As I'm sure you know, not much information about the outside world passes through the borders of DPRK and music seemed like an interesting topic to investigate what a highly educated, intelligent and fluent English speaker knows about what's going on away from her country. I asked her if She new Michael Jackson. “Yes”, she replied confidently, “I know him”. “That's good. At least the most famous singer of our generation made his presence felt over here and the good people of North Korea are not totally in the dark about the west”, I thought to myself. “He' sang Titanic, didn't he?” She inquired. “Erm....... Noo”. I let her listen to some Beatles on my mp3 player, but I think she felt uncomfortable. Not from the music, I think she quite enjoyed that. But it's illegal for the people to listen to any media from outside the country. Still, at least they're all spared J-Pop, K-Pop and all of our Popstars rubbish.

Back in Pyongyang we visited the War Museum......................

The 100 hundred storey Ryugyong Hotel (from a distance)......................................
Work started on this hotel in 1987. The project soon ran out of money. Our guide told us (with a straight face) that it should be finished by 2012.
The monument to mark the end of the War (even though it's not officially ended yet).....

Activity number 8 for the day was a ride on the subway. Two lines, few passengers, beautiful chandeliers, no delays and a frequent service. It's not like London.
Pyongyang metro

After dinner we had chance to go for a quick walk around Pyongyang. And I got a chance to have my photograph taken with one of the mysterious traffic ladies. They are to foreign tourists in DPRK what geisha are to foreign tourists in Kyoto. My jacket complements her uniform rather well, don't you think?
Traffic lady

Yangakkdo Hotel:
Our Hotel - The Yangakkdo
The view from my room on 42nd floor:
View from my hotel room on 42nd floor
The hotel has it's own microbrewery which makes great beer. Far better than any beer I drank in the South.

Day 5 – The train from Pyongyang

Pyongyang Station:
Pyongyang station
We had a short lie in before heading to the station for our train out-ta here.
We said took a few final pictures, said our goodbyes and that was that. A surreal, whirlwind tour coming swiftly to a close.

I was lucky enough to be sharing my compartment with a North Korean family. They lived in Dandong city just across the border in China. The father spoke some English and told me he was in import/export.
Pyongyang - Beijing Train
I didn't have any food with me, so the family very generously shared their lunch with me. It was great food too – fish, goat meat, kimchee and rice balls. I went down to the restaurant car to see what I could find to give them in return. I found some dodgy Russian chocolate which seemed to go down well with the mother.
Lunch on the Pyongyang - Beijing Train
When we reached the border the family was given a hard time and thoroughly searched by the immigration inspectors. It meant that they ran out of time to search my bags properly. The immigration staff hurriedly collected my declaration forms and gave my suitcase a swift cursory search and then we were set free over the bridge and back to China.
Half a bridge to China

Reflections on my stay in North Korea.

Before going on the trip I had very little idea what the situation would be like in North Korea. Whilst I had no doubt that it would be an interesting trip, I was unsure if it would be a touch on the sad and depressing side too. My fears were to be false. As a tourist, at least, the experience was all positive. The (few) people we met were all very kind and helpful and we were very well looked after from start to end. I felt in no threat whatsoever and had a very positive experience.

Were there many restrictions?

The tour was conducted with our 2 guides and we were asked to not wander too far away from them, but it didn't feel like we were being “nannied”. I've always travelled independently and this is my first experience a group guided tour, but my feeling is that it would be very similar to being on a guided tour of any other country. The itinerary was pretty full on with no time to rest or be bored. We arrived back at the hotel each evening feeling tired out after a full day on our feet. There were a couple of bars in the hotel to have a drink before bed.

Our guides encouraged us to ask permission before taking photographs, but the only time we were required to refrain from photos was of military vehicles and personnel, in the mausoleum and in the exhibition halls(were were handed our cameras into a cloakroom as entered the buildings). I never heard anyone refused permission.

The sights we were shown

Yes it's true that we were only shown the places that they wanted to show us, but by this token it's no different from visiting another country in a tour group. For example, when people come to Japan the tour itinerary invariably includes Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara & Hiroshima. This is because the tour companies choose the places that they think the tourists want to see. If you were to visit North Korea on your own private tour then I think are able to request the places that you want to visit and the tour company would do it's best to allow you access to these places.

Low points.

Having to bow at the statue of Kim Il Sung made me feel very uncomfortable indeed. To outwardly have to show respect to the person responsible for causing so much grief and misery in this land felt very wrong. But it was a small price to pay for getting the chance to see this fascinating country at this point in time.

Personal Highlights

My favourite aspect of the trip was chatting to our guides, hanging out in the karaoke bar and talking to the locals on the train. Reading between the lines of what we were told and guessing what the real situation is like. I recall a couple of incidents; Our guide, Mr Lim, told us that the Ryugyong hotel would be completed by 2012, but looked very sheepish and quickly moved on to his next point. I'm sure he's been saying the same thing ever since he started the job and knows full well the situation. He has to say what he has to say, but everyone knows the truth and his body language told us that he did too. There was another situation when I was talking to our female guide, Muang, about pets. I asked her if she had any pets in her house. She reeled of a story about how her and her sister had a dog for 4 years when they were children, but I got the feeling it was total bollocks and she'd rehearsed the story. Obviously it's difficult to know the truth and I have to judge my instincts. However, I have to say though, that on the whole I thought our guides were very open and honest with us when the situation allowed them to be. Of course we have a general idea of what questions they can answer, what questions they can't answer and what questions they give their official standard answers. But they do a great job under the circumstances.

Was it worth going?

Without doubt! It was a wonderful trip. Time passed too quickly and I wished that I signed up for the 6 night tour. I'd very much like to go back in the future and I'm sure if I do get a chance to return, the situation will be vastly different. It made me think about politics and history a lot more than I usually do when I go on a trip. Having the chance to visit the DMZ from both sides of the border was especially fascinating. The South are just as guilty as the North when it comes to spinning stories to suit their political needs.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mount Fuji Hill Climb Race

Last Sunday I "competed" in the first bike race of my life. I'd been reading a book by Dean Karnazes and on a whim of inspiration found myself entering the Mount Fuji hill climb bicycle race. It's only 12km, but the course snakes up the side of Mount Fuji as far as a tarmac road can take you. The height gain is 1200m.

Here's the profile:

I guess the toughest famous mountain for cycling is Alpe D'Huez in France.

Here's how the stats compare:
  Fuji Hill Climb Alpe D'huez
Start Altitude 800m 744m
Finish Altitude 2000m 1850m
Height Gain 1200m 1071m
Number of bends 35 21
Average gradient 10% 8.1%
Distance 11.4km 13.2km
Maximum gradient 22% 10.6%

Fortunately, I investigated how it compared to Alpe D'Huez after I'd done it. I think I might run off in fear if I'd have checked before starting.

We made a weekend of the trip and stayed with one of Kayo's old college friends near Kawaguchi-ko lake. Thanks to Naoki & Natchan and their 2 children Sora & Mira for their Hospitality. Here's the adorable Sora and Mira pulling strange faces.

Mount Fuji Hill Climb 2009 (8)

We arrived at the race venue about 7am with the race starting at 8:30. Everyone was looking very proffessional and I felt quite intimidated with my very modest bike. I spent a lot of my time trying to find another competitor (other than me) who didn't have clip in shoes, but failed. Even after the race, as far as I could tell, I was the only person without cleats.

Mount Fuji Hill Climb 2009 (15)

Mount Fuji Hill Climb 2009 (20)

I've done fair few running races in my time, but I can't recall ever feeling as nervous as I did on the start line on Sunday. I know I'm reasonably fit and felt confident in my abilty to get up the mountain, but adrenalin was flowing through my vains and butterflies in my stoamch like never before.

Mount Fuji Hill Climb 2009 (24)

Mount Fuji Hill Climb 2009 (23)

Mount Fuji Hill Climb 2009 (29)

Mount Fuji Hill Climb 2009 (34)

The start gun went and I settled into a steady pace near to the back of my group. After a kilomoter or so, I was steadily passing other riders, but by 3kms I was feeling absolutely exhausted. I suppose that's to be expected when you've been going up a very steep hill for 15 minutes. Only another 9km to go though. Despite the suffering, I still found myself steadily passing other riders. I had found my rhythm and was making reasonable progress. The pain levelled off (or at least didn't get any worse). I had a bit of trouble with my gears so had to briefly stop to sort that out around the 5km mark. From there on the road got steeper and my legs continued to burn. other cyclists were weaving all over the road, but I continued along the shortest route. I don't think either has any advantage as we all seemd to be trundling along at a similar steady pace. My bike is set up for touring as opposed to racing, so I"ve got a great range of gears for going uphill. I was certainly greatful for that as we went through some 15%+ gradients around the 8km mark. I kept on driving my legs, and even passed a few more racers before I crossed the line. I was relatively happy with my finish time of 1:11:31 and 11th/31 riders in the beginners catergory.

Mount Fuji Hill Climb 2009 (43)

I met some nice people from the Tokyo Cycling Club at the race, and I'd like to join them for a ride again. Hopefully they'll be coming over to Shizuoka at some point in the near future.

Kayo had been waiting patiently for me at the bootom of the mountain and had got wind of a Janken (Rock, Paper, Scissors) competition that was to take place after the prize presentation. The prize for the winner was a brand new Jamis Coda hybrid bicycle. By the time the presentaion started, rain had set in and by the end of the presentation it was lashing it down. This was looking great from our point of view since the fewer people that were present, the bigger the chance of winning the prize. There were only about 40 people present by the time the competition started. Here's what happened:
Round 1: I lose - That's me out. Kayo wins - She's through to round 2. It's down to about 10 people.
Round 2: Kayo wins again - It's down to 4 people.
Round 3: Kayo wins again - It's down to the 2 people. The 2 finalists are called on to the stage for "The Final"
The Final: It's a draw - Go Again!
It's another draw - Go Again!

Kayo Wins!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mount Fuji Hill Climb 2009 (46)

Unbelievable! We somehow have to fit another bike in our tiny car for the return journey. But it was a very worthwhile day out indeed. I really enjoyed the race and quite fancy giving another one a go.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A cycle trip/pilgrimage around the 88 Temples of Shikoku


During the spring vacation from school, I went cycling around Shikoku for 2 weeks. I’d read about the sacred 88 temples of Shikoku in the lonely planet guidebook and thought it would make a good trip. Travelling around temples is not what I usually do with my free time and many people along the way asked me, “Why are you doing the Shikoku pilgrimage?”

  • I’d only briefly been to Shikoku once before and thought it would be a nice place to see more of.
  • The distance of the pilgrimage fitted well with a 2 week cycling trip.
  • Usually when I go on a holiday, I choose and plan my own itinerary of the places where I want to go. By following the pilgrimage course, I was visiting places which I’d normally bypass or never visit. I thought it would be interesting to follow a route decided by someone other than me for a change.
  • I thought it might be interesting to learn about Buddhism. I’d read a little about it in the past, and decided some more investigating wouldn’t do any harm.
  • The weather in Shikoku is nice at that time of year.
  • I thought it would be a good chance to meet people who don’t usually fall into my peer group.

View The 88 Temples of Shikoku Henro in a larger map

I packed my bike up and took the train down to Tokushima to start my journey.

When I was planning the trip and deciding how far I could travel each day, I based my calculations solely on distance – figuring that 100km per day would be about right. As a result the plan for day 1 was 100km. The 1st 16 temples are all grouped together along the Yoshino river and within 100km of each other. This meant I was due to visit 16 temples on my 1st day. I suddenly realized that even if I only stayed 10 minutes at each temple, then that would be nigh on 3 hours. I also realized that it would in reality take more than 10 minutes to see each temple. I also hadn’t taken into account the mountains. Temple 12 is about 900m above sea level. My plans for day 1 were looking in tatters before I’d begun. But I’d payed for 2 nights at the minshuku in Tokushima, so I had to make it back there by the evening.
Thoughts for the day
Be more decisive
There's a lot of temples
Try to stay ahead of schedule
Enjoy the trip

Day 1 – Saturday March 21st 2009

Day01 - 01 - 霊山寺 (Temple1)

I didn’t get off to an auspicious start and I was playing catch up from the very beginning. A temple filled itinerary meant that I didn’t have time to stop for food. I had some Udon for brunch around 11am and that was basically it for the day. Not to be recommended. I rushed around the temples and was finished at temple 11 by 3:15. That gave me 1:45 to get to temple 12 Shozanji before the stamp office closed at 5pm. It was 25km away and on the top of a mountain. Full of optimism, I hastily set off.

Rather too hastily as things turned out. The road I was following wound its way up a mountain and gradually gettting narrower and narrower. It then stopped being a road and became a path. It then stopped being a path and became stairs. I carried my bike up the stairs. This path wasn’t marked on my map, but I thought if I continued then I could connect with the pilgrimage path and have a chance of making up to the temple. By 5pm, I was still carrying my bike down the mountain trail and nowhere near the temple. In fact I was probably further away since I now had to ride around another mountain, up and over a pass, down into a valley and up the mountain on which Shozanji stands.

Day01 - 02 - Wrong turn

I met a cute and friendly shiba-ken dog along the way which was all very nice. He was rather too friendly though as he trotted alongside me. I had to get off my bike, get angry with him and chase him back down the road to his home, otherwise he’d still be accompanying me now. “Kawaisou” as they say in Japanese, “Poor Dog”.

The sun had set long ago, and it was pitch black. I finally made it to Shozanji around 8pm having collapsed of exhaustion twice along the way. I headed straight to a vending machine and gulped down 3 energy drinks and a can of hot chocolate before climbing up the last few stairs to the temple to say my prayers.
Day01 - 03 - 焼山寺 (Temple 12) at night

According to my guidebook, there was temple lodging available. The thought of 30 more kilometers back to Tokushima wasn’t very appealing, so I went to inquire. The middle aged lady clearing up in the kitchen looked very confused and gave me a rather frosty reception. “You can’t stay,” was all she said. I spotted some bread for sale, so inquired about buying some. I plodded off to fetch my wallet from my bike and returned to pay for it. I was met with quizzical looks and an interrogation from some of the guests, which I suppose was understandable. A strange foreigner cycling in the dead of night to a mountain-top temple in the middle of nowhere is not really an everyday occurrence, I guess. Their reaction when I told them I was about to set off for Tokushima on my bike was “It’s pitch black out there!! Wwhhhhaaaaaaaaa!?!?”

Reluctantly I headed off and finally made it back at 11:15pm – 16 hours after I’d left. I took a quick bath and headed off to sleep as soon as my ear touched my pillow. It had been a tough start to the trip and I hoped for an easier time of things over the coming days.

Thoughts for the day

Surprised on how many people are doing it.

It's tougher than I thought.

Respect to the walkers

It's gonna be hard to stick to my schedule

Carrying your bike over a mountain is hard

Day 2 – Sunday March 22nd 2009

Day02 - 01 - 井戸寺 (Temple 17)

I awoke feeling less tired than I feared I might and made decent progress throughout the day. I was determined not to run out of energy today and had an unhealthy breakfast at a convenience store and a healthy lunch at a noodle restaurant. Showers continued throughout the day and by the time I snaked my way up the steep mountain road to temple 20 they had turned to heavy rain. The temple was totally deserted and was serenely peaceful. My original plan for today had been to spend the night at Tomoya-san’s (an organic farmer I’d met through but I was no where near on schedule. I phoned ahead to a minshuku to make a reservation and freewheeled down the mountain in the cool rain, safe in the knowledge that I’d soon be sat in a hot bath and eating some delicious home cooked food. The minshuku was full of pilgrims and I had a great chat with a couple of “Ojisan” over dinner.
Day02 - 02 - Me in the rain

Thoughts for the Day

The pilgrimage feels a bit like a treasure hunt. I was chatting with an ojisan and he likened it to orienteering.
Why use a satnav when you're driving the route? Where's the hardship in that?

Shikoku is rural. They seem to sell more kei trucks and tractors than cars around here.

Day 3 – Monday March 23rd

Day03 - 01 - Early morning at 太竜寺 (Temple 21)

Day03 - 02 - Guard at 平等寺 (Temple 22)

A clear, crisp and chilly morning awaited me today. A healthy breakfast of fish, raw egg, rice and seaweed was eaten in the company of the other pilgrims before we all ventured off on our different journeys once more. I reached temple 21 before 8am and it was still pretty empty of visitors. The road leading up to the temple was incredibly steep, but it was a great deal more rewarding than taking the cable-car. The view from the temple grounds through the forest was great and I could see the ocean in the distance. It was to be down hill all the way from here today, as that’s where I was heading. I wound my way down the mountain and through the country lanes to join the busy Route 56 along the coast of Tokushima prefecture and on into Kochi.

Day03 - 03 - My new girlfriend

I reached Tomoya-san’s in late afternoon and had a bit of a rest. In the evening I helped him sort his tomatoes into the different boxes for the different destinations – The green larger fruit bound fruit for the big supermarket chains in Nagoya city and the riper, smaller fruit bound for the local stores. It gave me a small insight into how tough being a commercial farmer is. It’s not only the growing of the crops which takes effort, but there are many other jobs to do alongside this which are just as hard work and even more time consuming.

I have great respect for the way Tomoya-san has sacrificed the financial rewards of his advertising executive lifestyle in Yokohama to fulfill his desire of living a rural life next to the beach in Shikoku. His eyes sparkled with joy as he said, “Shikoku’s the BEST!”
Day03 - 04 - Makoto, Me, Tomoya

Thoughts for the Day
How times have changed in the last 100 Years (I was talking to an old lady who first walked the temples in 1924)
For farmers, Packing their produce must take as much time and effort as growing it does.

Day 4 – Tuesday March 24th 2009

We rose early and I left Tomoya-san to his tomatoes and headed off along the coast towards Cape Muroto. I made excellent progress throughout the day along route 55 and it was a thoroughly enjoyable day of cycling in the sun. I made it just in time for the Nokyojyo at temple 28, but had to do 36km in 90 minutes to make it in time. Cycling at this pace felt fast to me, but it’s nothing compared to 45km/hr that professional cyclists do in the Tour de France.

Day04 - 01 - 津照寺 (Temple 25)

Thoughts for the Day

Why do worshippers sound a bell after praying? It sounds like a time's up bell from the TV Quiz "Just a minute"

Day 5 – Wednesday March 25th 2009

Day05 - 01 - 国分寺 (Temple 29)
I almost lost my wallet today between Temple 33 and 34. I packed away my stuff in my panniers at temple 33, but left my wallet out to buy a drink. I then decided to have an orange instead and I rode the 10km between the two temples with my wallet balancing precariously on my pannier bag.
In the evening I found myself riding along the “Yokonami Skyline”. It was a beautiful sunny evening with an constantly undulating road providing spectacular views across the mountains and Pacific Ocean. It was definitely one of my favourite rides on the trip.
Day05 - 02 - Evening on the Yokonami skyline

Thoughts for the Day

Why do I only seem to see coaches in the mornings?
What is the point of "taxi henroing"? How boring
What does "Equivocate" mean?

Day 6 - Thursday March 26th 2009

Day06 - 01 - Morning shadow
The distances between temples in Kochi meant that today was to be a heavy mileage day. I got off to a flyer but soon realized that “more haste and less speed” would have been the way to go. By my calculations temple 37 (Iwamotoj) was to be found after about 30kms of riding for the day. My odometer had reached 37km and there was still no sign of the temple so I stopped to investigate my maps. I’d overshot the runway by about 9kms. And to add insult to injury, it was the other side of the valley that I’d just descended into. As I U-turned to head back to the temple a walking henro couple asked if I’d forgotten something. “Yes,” I said sheepishly, not adding that it was the actual temple which I’d forgotten.
Day06 - 02 - The view towards Ashizuri
Towards the end of the day I misread my map again. This time it didn’t cost me much distance, only height. I took the mountain skyline instead of following the coastal route. I never intended to climb over the 450m mountain, but the view from the top was certainly impressive and the free-wheel down the other side thoroughly enjoyable.
Day06 - 03 - 金剛福寺 (Temple 38)
Day06 - 04 - Sunset in Tosashimizu

Thoughts for the Day
Why do I only seem to see coaches in the mornings?

What is the point of "taxi henroing"? How boring

What does "Equivocate" mean?

Day 7 – Friday March 27th 2009

The most common way to do the pilgrimage is on a guided tour bus and I was always bumping into them at the temples. At temple 39 I received a gift from a bus driver. He suddenly came over, presented me with a sports drink, saying “puresento” and walked off straight away. Five minutes later he was back with a bag of oranges. Again, he suddenly came over to me, said “puresento” and then turned away. Straight away he exclaimed to his passengers, “Wow! He’s got a really big nose, hasn’t he?”
Day07 - 01 - 延光寺 (Temple 39)

I stayed with a kind elementary school teacher tonight. I’d used the warm showers website again to get in touch with a fellow cycling couple about staying the night. Unfortunately, they were away during my visit, but introduced me to one of their friends who very kindly put me up for the night. Many thanks to Chizuru-sensei and her two children, Michina-chan & Shizuto-kun.
Day07 - 02 Chizuru-Michina-Shizuto-me

Thoughts for the Day
People can be very kind. I stopped for lunch in a udon café, but the old lady wouldn't let me pay for my lunch.

Chizuru Sensei is being very kind to let me stay too.

What is the point of Taxi Henros?

Day 8 – Saturday March 28th 2009

Day08 - 01 - Ozu Castle

Today was definitely an uphill day and I headed off into the mountains and the small town of Kumakogen. At temple 44 (Daihoji) I met a cool retired seaman. He told me that he often did day trips around the 88 temples from his home in Kochi and how he’d visited England many times when he was in the navy. He invited me to chant the heart sutra with him. I was still unsure what I was doing completing a pilgrimage and if I really belonged there, but this gesture had the effect of making me feel really welcome as a “henro”.
Day08 - 01 - The retired sailor and me at 大宝寺 (Temple 44)

After I left Daihoji, I only had a short ride through some hills to reach my accommodation for the night. As I was approaching the entrance to a tunnel, a car was waiting in a lay-by. An incredibly attractive lady was waiting by the car. She asked me if I was doing to pilgrimage circuit and then handed me a small packet of home-made cookies which I gratefully accepted. She then offered me a 1000Yen to help me on my journey too, which I vociferously refused. But she slipped it into my pannier bag and ran back to her car before I had chance to return it. People can be very kind sometimes.

Thoughts for the Day

People are not always what they seem on opening impression. 1st impressions are often misguided

Don't be greedy - I received 1000Yen from a beautiful young woman which I really didn't need, but recently I've been fighting for more money from my job Why?

What will Shikoku be like in the future? It's full of old people now.

Day 9 – Sunday March 29th 2009

Day09 - 01 Early morning at 岩屋寺 (Temple 45)
Today was to be a relatively easy ride. Less than 50kms and all down hill into Matsuyama. The other bonus was that I got to finish the day in Dogo Onsen. It’s said to be oldest onsen in Japan at 3000Years old. It’s also the setting for one of Japan’s best known novels, “Botchan” by Natsumi Soseki. The tourist board go rather over the top on selling the “Botchan” theme, but having read the book it’s interesting to see where it was set.

Day09 - 02 - Construction information for new tunnels

In many onsens there are often signs saying “No Tattoos”. This is primarily to keep the Yakuza(Japanese mafia) away. With Dogo Onsen being one of Japan’s most famous tourist attractions I was a little surprised to see a couple of my fellow bathers covered in tattoos and their companion missing his little finger – another tell-tale sign of the Yakuza.
Tonight I stayed with a friend of a friend on the outskirts of Matsuyama. After my onsen I caught the train out to Iyo and met Adrian and his family. He instantly supplied me with beer and we were soon off for more at a local izakaya. Thanks to them for putting me up and supplying me (with far too much) beer.
Day09 - 03 - 3 story Pagoda at 石手寺 (Temple 51)

Thoughts for the Day

Cycling downhill is cool

Day 10 – Monday March 30th 2009

With a headache and upset stomach from the night before, I caught the train back into Matsuyama to collect my bike from the underground cycling parking lot. These are like multistory car parks for bikes. As I wheeled my bike over to the lift, I bumped into a bike and knocked it over. This then had a domino effect on the entire row and I was left to pick up about 20 bikes. Not a good start and a sure sign that I wasn’t on top of the world. A visit to MOS burger lifted my spirits somewhat, but it was to be a lethargic day ahead.
Day10 - 01 - 円明寺 (Temple 53)
It was a beautiful ride along the coast of the inland sea to Nankobo temple (Number 55) in Imabari. The lady from the stamp office (with excellent English) helpfully booked me into a cheap hotel around the corner for the night.
Day10 - 02 - The view across the inland sea to Honshu
The hotel owner was a kind hearted and helpful old man. He spent 5 minutes photocopying and highlighting a map to show me the way to Taisanji (Temple 56). It was very kind of him to do this, but the temple was on the same road as his hotel. He could’ve said “Just go straight, It’s in 4km on your right.” He was also insistent that I should leave my mobile phone number with him, in case I forgot anything in the hotel.

Thoughts for the Day

Should I cycle to 66 or take the ropeway?

If I take the ropeway, will it be cheating or just being practical with my time requirements?

Do the walkers take the ropeway?

Day 11 – Tuesday March 30th 2009

I had an early start this morning and made great progress. I had the mountain temple of Yokomineji (Temple 60) to contend with around lunchtime. The road to the temple stopped a 3km before the top of the mountain due to the steepness. My guidebook was also warning me that this temple is one of the most difficult due to the narrow, slippery and steep path. I was somewhat relieved to find it didn’t take me as long as I expected. It wasn’t an easy climb, but it certainly wasn’t as difficult as my guidebook made it seem.

Next on my list was Koonji (Temple 61), a modern concrete construction of a temple. I was walking across the compound when I heard “Mr Cant! Mr Cant!” I looked up quite startled. “Who on earth can know me here?” I wondered. It was the priest calling me over, so I went over to find out what was going on. He could see the look of surprise on my face and seemed to be enjoying himself as I puzzled over how he knew my name. “John Cant, from England, Yes? You stayed at the Dai 1 Hotel in Imabari last night, right?”
“Yes”, I confirmed.
“You’ve left your mobile phone somewhere haven’t you?”
“Have I?” I asked obliviously.
“Yes you have. It’s at the hotel in Imabari, Here’s the hotel’s number and there’s a public phone over there. Please give him a call back”
I did as he suggested and duly arranged to collect my phone later that evening. I was hoping to get some good distance in during the afternoon, but any distance I covered on my bike now involved doing it twice more on the train as I went back to Imabari to collect my phone. I stopped for the day earlier than planned and went back to retrieve my phone.
Day11 - 01 - 香園寺 (Temple 61)

Thoughts for the Day

Do Bus Henros get as much out of the trip as individuals?

Day 12 – Tuesday March 31st 2009

I needed an early start today as I was to visit the dreaded Unpenji (Temple 66) at an altitude of 950m. I set my alarm for 5:30, but couldn’t face getting up and kept hitting the snooze button. Partly a bad habit, and partly in fear of the impending climb, I think.

I made great progress along the main road, before turning off into the hills for Sankakuji (Temple 65). As I climbed up to the temple my bike developed a worrying squeak which I couldn’t figure out why. “Great”, I thought, “Mechanical failure, the prefect excuse to take the cable car to Unpenji”. As I descended back down into the sunshine had turned to showers but the squeak had disappeared. I was also making excellent progress so had no excuses not to cycle to the temple highest temple on the circuit.
The climb to the top was not as tough as I’d feared and I actually enjoyed it. When I reached the mountaintop though it was bitterly cold and I put on all my layers of clothes. The rain turned to snow and the statues in the mist turned the temple into a wonderfully mysterious place. I headed into the warmth of the Ropeway station and for a couple of cans of well earned hot chocolate. I looked on with envy as a couple of tour groups headed down on the ropeway complaining of the cold.
Day12 - 01 - Snow at 雲辺寺 (Temple 66)

Day12 - 02 - Statues in the mist at 雲辺寺 (Temple 66)

I headed back out to my bike and prepared for the bitterly cold descent to Kannonji. I spent the afternoon dreaming of a beautiful onsen as I contunied along my way. I still hadn’t warmed up by the time I reached my minshuku for the night. But the welcome was warm, the bath was hot and the food plentiful and delicious so I was able to enjoy a relaxing evening.

Thoughts for the day

The guys whose plans it were to build the temples must be very pursuasive.

Carrying all of the materials to the mountain tops to build a temple is must have been crazy work. And then you need to actually build it too.

Day 13 – Wednesday April 1st 2009

I had planned on finishing the trip on Friday, but I still had 19 temples to visit, so it was looking rather optimistic. I was upbeat and ready to roll on the bright and chilly morning as I headed through the Kagawa countryside towards Takamatsu. I needed to do another steep climb to reach Iyadanji (Temple 71) and even from the car park there were a few hundred stairs left to climb to reach the temple complex at the top. Zentsuji (Temple 75) is the birthplace of the pilgrim founder Kobo Daishi and is made up of a large temple complex covering 45,000 square metres. It’s so big that it’s more like a small village than a temple. Unfortunately with my schedule, I didn’t have time to explore the grounds fully and rushed through to get my stamps and say my prayers.
Day13 - 01 - 曼荼羅寺 (Temple72)
Day13 - 02 - 天皇寺 (Temple 79)

I continued on my way. At the end of the day I had to pedaling hard up another mountain and then sprint up a huge flight of stairs, I was just in time to catch the stamp office at Shiromineji (Temple 81) before it closed at 5pm. Negoroji (Temple 82) is on the same mountain, but my quest to find accommodation nearby proved fruitless and I had to head back down into town and make another assault on the mountain the following morning.
Day13 - 03 - The Seto Ohashi

Thoughts for the day

Just by seeing people a few times along the route, you build up a connection with them even without saying much. Why is that?

Day 14 – Friday April 2nd 2009

I had 8 temples to visit today, if I was to finish the pilgrimage. 2 of them had cable cars to reach the mountain top, but I wasn’t about to succumb to using those on the final day of my mission. I made good progress throughout the morning, but with some big distances and looming mountains to come in the afternoon, It became apparent that I wouldn’t finish my quest today. Realising this released me of the time pressure and I settled in to enjoy my penultimate day of travelling.

I met my 1st other foreign henro at Yashimaji (Temple 84). She didn’t speak Japanese and I think she had been having a tough time of things. She’d met a Japanese man while doing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain who’d told her about Shikoku. Like me, she wasn’t particularly religious, but thought it would make for an interesting adventure. It was taking her about 6 weeks and I think she was looking forward to getting back home. I had a great deal of respect for her though as it must have been pretty tough and lonely at times. I hoped to bump into her again later in the day, but that was the only time I saw her.
Day14 - 01 - The Dutch-Newyorker Henro
Yakuriji (Temple 85) is another temple with an incredibly steep road (20% in places) to the top. A grumpy old lady tried to tell me that I couldn’t cycle up the road, but I was having none of that and made it to the top. I finished the day at Nagaoji (Temple 87) before catching the train back to Takamatsu to meet Kayo, Kae and Rie who’d come to collect me at the end of my trip. The hotel we were staying in had a fantastic onsen and later we all went out for dinner. I was conscious not to drink too much beer as I still had a couple of mountains to get over the following morning.
Day14 - 02 - 長尾寺 (Temple87)

Thoughts for the day

It's much much much more pleasant to not be worrying about getting through a certain number of temples in a day and just taking things as the come

Everyone you meet has their own story and they all usually have intersting things to say.

Day 15 – Saturday April 2nd 2009

After an outrageously big breakfast at the hotel buffet, we drove back to the station at Nagaoji for me to collect my bike and continue on my way to Okuboji (Temple 88). I stopped to apply sun cream to my burnt ears but ended up putting on my raincoat as the sun suddenly turned to rain. I made it to temple 88 and it was with a hint of melancholy that I headed off into the rainy mountains and back to where I started 2 weeks ago at Ryozanji (Temple 1).
Day15 - 01 - 大窪寺 (Temple 88)
Day15 - 02 - Back at the start 霊山寺 (Temple 1)
I made it through the heavy rain and over the last few mountains to reach my goal. I felt proud to have made it round and compared how I was feeling now to the feelings of excitement and uncertainty of 2 week previous.

I went to the stamp office for get my book stamped, packed my bike into the car and then headed off for a quick bath. I still needed the stamp from Shozanji, so we drove up there in the rain and I recalled my experiences on the mountain in the pitch black 2 weeks previous. We had to run from the car park through the rain but just made it before the stamp office closed. That really was my last temple for the trip and we piled back in the car for the ride to Kochi and some well earned food and drink.
Day15 - 03 - Drving down from Shozanji (Temple 12)

Thoughts for the day

I feel proud to have finished, but wonder what the point of it was.

How many people of done this before me?

What have I learned?


The pilgrimage is said to be seen as a challenge with various trials and tribulations. As I look back on my 2 weeks on the road I realize that it’s been a success. I’ve learned things about myself and others. I’ve learned to relax a bit more and not worry about timings and schedules so much. The most enjoyable times on the trip were when I wasn’t rushing around to reach a certain place by a deadline. I also realize just how productive a day can be by getting going early in the morning. I had a thoroughly enjoyable, rewarding and at times challenging fortnight and all in all it was a great trip. I highly recommend it.

Some Stats

Total Distance: 1337km

Avg Speed: 16.8km/hr

Longest Day: 158.8km (Day 6)

Shortest Day: 44.7km (Day 9)

Avg km/day: 89.1km

Temples per day: 5.9

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