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
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).
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