JOSIE DEW: Ageing Japanese grandmothers wanted to scrub off her freckles in the public baths, but otherwise, the cyclist and author received a warm welcome wherever she pedalled

y favourite passport stamp is a visa extension from Kagoshima, on the southern tip of Japan. The office was run by a strange little man who listened patiently to my attempts to speak Japanese, politely added a nought to the end of the bill and then invited me to stay for noodles. People often think of the Japanese as being incredibly reserved, but I found that everywhere I went I was welcomed and presented with endless small gifts. People would rush up to me and say "You are fine example of British bicycle strength" before offering me tea or even a room for the night.

Travelling alone by bicycle really is a great way to meet people. I love that sense of uncertainty, where suddenly you appear over the crest of a hill and find someone who needs a hand, or wants to talk to you; a farmer or some women pumping water by the side of the road. Total strangers can do the most incredible things. One night I ended up drinking tea with some fishermen in lampshade hats by the side of the Gokase river. We were having quite a raucous conversation, but I never felt threatened in the slightest, because there's such a culture of honour there.

It made a nice change, as I'd been on my guard ever since a man attacked me and tried to throw me over a balcony in Bulgaria. In retrospect, I think it turned out to be a good thing, because after cycling through so many countries without a major catastrophe I was beginning to think "I'm invincible" when I should really have been more cautious. I actually felt safer in Japan than anywhere else that I've travelled through.

It's an extraordinary culture to experience as a gaijin; as foreigners are almost expected to break the social rules of bathing, shoes and gift- giving. I soon learned to carry potential presents, to reciprocate the teddy bear-shaped glass chopstick stands, giant radishes and My Little Kitty socks that I received at every turn. I also discovered that the Japanese don't understand freckles when I went to the sento; communal baths, and found my arms wedged between the knees of a 157-year-old woman desperate to get rid of all the tiny dirty marks that somehow wouldn't wash off.

There's a huge gulf between polite society and private behaviour in Japan. The same women who had bowed and smiled at me from behind cupped hands in public earlier were swapping filthy stories in the baths and openly laughing each time soap failed to shift a freckle. There's also a lot of innuendo that goes on which is quite difficult to spot as a foreigner.

To be accepted by society you have to behave in a Japanese manner, but kids can dress like Americans and listen to pop music. Traditional practices are having to compete with western cultural influences, like fast food, which have been embraced almost universally at a superficial level. For Japan's young people it can be difficult to find a happy medium, caught between two aggressive, hugely differing cultures.

I've been riding the same custom-built bike from Roberts in Croydon for over 12 years now, which must be astonishingly lucky as it's never been stolen or smashed. It tends to be other people that I'm cycling with who have disasters, although often it's because I've crashed into them. I sometimes need a little warning because I'm used to being on my own and I tend to look around at the scenery for just a moment too long. One of the few mishaps that I have had was at the border between Tunisia and Algeria, where I fainted while trying to fill in an immigration form after cycling 60 miles through the desert.

I've cycled over 200,000 miles through 42 countries, but there's still loads of places that I haven't managed to visit, like Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and southern Africa. I think there's room in my passport for a few more stamps.



Josie Dew is author of "A Ride in the Neon Sun - a Gaijin in Japan" published by LittleBrown (pounds 18.99).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning: The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier leaguePlus updates from Everton vs Palace
people'I hated him during those times'
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleFirst memoir extracts show she 'felt pressured' into going out with the Sex Pistols manager
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Lewis Hamilton in action during the Singapore Grand Prix
Formula OneNico Rosberg retires after 14 laps
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
peopleActress tells men: 'It's your issue too'
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam