Posts tagged Onomichi
Japan: Day Three

I slept better than I anticipated. At breakfast I doubled up on eggs and tofu and made sure to get my fair share of rice.  I went to my room, stretched, put on my gear and headed to the lobby.

The sun was shining and the air was warm but perfectly crisp as we walked over to collect our bikes.  We couldn't have asked for better weather.

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Once we were all organized we walked down to the ferry to start our journey.

The short ride took us over to the next island, where we began, single file, passing houses, fields and farms.  I thought to myself 'This is what it means to be alive,' and was surprised by the ease with which I was riding.

I sang loudly and smiled, yelling "Konichiwa!" as we passed locals.

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When we reached the hills heading to the bridge I found myself being one of the first to climb up, and when my friend from Mexico, Miguel, told me I was a natural rider I yelled back at him "That is one of the best compliments I have ever received!"

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Just as we were all starting to get tired, we stopped at a sweet shop for wagashi - a Japanese confectionary made from glutinous rice - stuffed with local citrus.  The texture was pillowy soft and the orange inside tasted freshly picked.

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The rest of the group enjoyed big bowls of ramen and the kitchen whipped up a special gluten free meal for me - fried rice with eggs and ham! I love meals like this and vowed to make more like them at home.

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After some good laughs and massages, it was time to hit the road again.

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As we rode I breathed in heavily. The air in Japan is like nothing I've ever experienced. There is something so pure and sweet about it, and I find myself feeling better than I ever normally do.

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I couldn't help but think that I would never have experienced a day like this if I hadn't gotten over my fears. If I hadn't sobbed two years ago when I attempted to ride for the first time and realized how much shame I'd built up over riding a bike. To me cycling represented a million things in my life I had failed at or couldn't finish - learning to drive, my marriage, all the things I couldn't say or do.

Today I let all of that go.  I just rode.

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Our many stops along the way made the ride really easy and enjoyable. We even stopped at a bicycle shrine where we were greeted with a special purification ceremony, tea and cold towels.

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As we cycled along I got to know some of my travelling companions better.  They all have a great sense of humour, enthusiasm, and a sense of calm and joy that seems to come with a life well travelled.

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Near the end of the ride everything started to hurt. The jet leg started creeping in and the last hills were especially challenging. At one point I went to scratch my nose, head in the clouds, and completely tumbled over. The young man behind me, a well known actor from Thailand, helped me adjust my seat and make sure I was ok. I thanked him, brushed it off and kept going, trying to shake any fear and self doubt the incident had created.

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From here the rest of the ride was easy.  We went over another bridge while the sun started to set, then raced down the hill and back onto the road.  When I was starting to get tired again, the perfect pit stop arrived.

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Fun fact: Japanese dairy is amazing! I dug into a small cup of milk and sea salt and chestnut ice cream with glee. I need to do more active vacations because it makes eating that much more rewarding.  Everything we ate just felt like added fuel under my belt.

And because our food journey couldn't stop there, we rode another ways to a small village where the group stopped for hot fish croquettes. While I couldn't eat any, the owner - a small elderly woman - requested a photo alone with me and made my day. I also got a picture with our fearless leader...Yuji-San! This man has endless energy and so much love for what he does.

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Before I knew it we had arrived at the ferry to take us home. I had completed my first big ride. 35km, one small scrape, a lifetime of fears faced.

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I celebrated with my French Canadienne with drinks from the vending machine and an epic sunset as we waited for the boat.

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Eventually the small ferry arrived and took our tired bodies back to our hotel, where we freshened up and headed out for a tempura dinner.

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I never thought I would complete a ride like this, in Japan no less. With all the bizarre twists and turns my life has taken - this has been one of the best.

Japan: Day Two

I woke up early yesterday, excited to see that the sun was shining brightly over Onomichi, and had breakfast on my own. IMG_6353

I mixed my lightly poached egg into my rice, the yolk creating a thick sauce, and carefully assembled bites by stuffing seaweed with the rice mixture, pickled lotus root, daikon, squab and red bean. 

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With some free time to myself, I threw on my jacket and went for a run along the harbour front.  Fishermen were casting their lines, cyclists were starting their day, young kids in uniform were taking their bicycles on the ferry to the other island, and preparations for the festival were being made.

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The more I get a feel for this city the more I love it. It is calm, the people are warm and polite, and it truly is beautiful under the sunlight.

It seems there are many young families here, with hip moms and dads, and a lot of young businesses with local crafts to sell.

Soon it was time to go to the Betcha festival.  We gathered in a grass park and were given traditional blue jackets that would give us permission to get up close to the action.

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This festival is said to have originated in an attempt to ward off the plague during the Edo Era. Dancing to the beat of music played on drums and bells, young men wearing scary costumes run through the streets, chasing the children and hitting them on the head or body with bamboo whisks. This is meant to keep them to safe from illness for the coming year.

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At first it was totally bizarre to see.  Parents with big smiles would thrust their children towards the "monsters" so they could get a smack.  The kids would cry while the moms and dads look elated.  But once you got used to it it seemed totally normal.  I was even hit in the head a few times and am looking forward to a healthy year ahead!

After the festival we were given prepared bento boxes and some free time to enjoy the rest of the festival.

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I have had an obsession with bento boxes since I was younger. This lunch was no exception. It was just as beautiful to look at as it was pleasurable to eat!

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With free time on my hands, I did what I do best - get lost and find delicious things.

I started with a ginger tea soda from a little hipster cafe with locally roasted coffee and crafts.

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For the next couple of hours I wandered through the main shopping area which was full of food stands, families and games for kids.

I also snuck through the smaller streets which reminded me of Venice. You could spend hours getting lost here. The narrow streets are full of sweet apartments, restaurants and cafes with very little signage, cyclers and motorists zooming past.

Eventually it was time to meet our group. After we checked out a local souvenir shop - my team apéro went on a quick mission to grab a glass of wine before dinner.

We found the perfect little hideaway in Cafe Guesthouse, a small school themed cafe with a dorm-like guesthouse upstairs.

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When we were told our time was up, we hurried down the street to a small soba noodle restaurant, where we were seated in shifts for dinner, keeping warm with small cups of sake.

Since I couldn't eat the noodles (damn you gluten), one of our leaders gave me some photos so I could pretend.

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Luckily the kind owners created a special meal for me.  It was some kind of rice, egg and ham custard.  Very simple and comforting.

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The restaurant also had a photography theme to it (they love themes here) and the owner took many photos during our meal.

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We left warmed by the food and the sake, giggling as we walked back to our hotel through the covered shopping street.

I am equally charmed by Onomichi and this group of travellers.  I love how we come from all ends of the world, but have been brought together by our shared passions and talents.  I feel very lucky to be a part of it.

As we walked I was asked if I was nervous about our cycling day today. I answered "Yes, but I'm also strangely calm. I feel like no matter what happens it will make a great story."  I guess you'll find out tomorrow.  Wish me luck.

Japan: Day One

You never know what to expect in Japan. After a traditional breakfast of rice, fish egg and seaweed (my favourite), I headed to the conference room for our orientation.

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Here we learned about the motive to help Onomichi tourism thrive, a little more about this small shipping city in Hiroshima with a passion for cycling, and then introduced ourselves.

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My introduction went something like "Hi my name is Gillian, I'm a travel writer, social media specialist, past TV producer, and I really enjoy eating and drinking.  Also I just learned how to ride a bike so brace yourself on our big cycling day."

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The French Canadian girl also introduced herself with a bit of "I love eating and drinking," and we quickly realized we'd be friends (and maybe left a certain impression of Canadian girls.)

After I set our group up with a hashtag to share photos - you can follow here - we took off for lunch and a day of exploring.

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Lunch was simple and good at our hotel restaurant. It has a bizarre Hawaii theme that I can't quite explain. When I ran up to my room to grab my coat I realized I had a nice mound of rice stuck to my crotch and I'm hoping I made at least one person laugh on my way up.

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After sitting in a conference room all morning we all couldn't wait to explore. As we walked to the Senkoji Temple we passed small stores selling dried fish, fruit, and pottery. Several men and women of all ages passed on bikes, and some of the trees were lit up with bright orange persimmons growing.

We took the ropeway up to the temple, which overlooks the entire city, the Seto Inland Sea, Shikoku mountains, old houses with tiled roofs, temples and shrines. The sun revealed itself and the smell of incense filtered through the air. I felt calmer than I have in a long time.

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The temple is said to have been founded in 806, the first year of the Daidō era.  The big rock beside the main hall, Tama no Iwa, is said to have been a landmark for voyages due to a shining gem placed on it in the past.

While other visitors visited the various shrines for good luck, we were taken in for a traditional tea ceremony with one of the monks.  We sat crossed legged and were served a sweet red bean jelly and matcha tea.  The secret is to have a bite of your jelly before sipping the bitter matcha.

From here we followed one of the monks down the steep small winding streets, passing local homes and a small school with children, to a meditation spot.

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The young monk, dressed traditionally with a shaved head, first led us into the temple's practice room. Here he taught us how to cross and twist our legs into a difficult meditation posture, to focus our gaze, concentrate on our breathing, and try to find a blank space in our mind.

The monk himself had mastered the posture, the art of slow inhales and exhales, and that happy place of nothingness (he said don't think about dinner - my tummy gurgled.)

We were then led into a separate room for a ten minute meditation. We bowed, turn towards our pillows, sat and closed our eyes. At first my legs throbbed. There was no blank space (I even started singing Blank Space by Taylor Swift my head), and then something shifted. I counted my breaths.  I felt calm. My legs hurt less. And before I knew it we heard the sound of the gong and the meditation was over.

When it was all done my friend told me she was impressed that I had kept the seated position the whole time and the monk complimented my posture - I was elated. I have been struggling to meditate for years now and it's something I would really love to bring into my life.

Feeling a new sense of joy and calm, we headed back down the small roads, passing groups of people setting up for tomorrow's festival, paper lanterns hung everywhere, a young group of kids passing us, each yelling "Konichiwa!" with cheeky grins.

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We walked back towards the hotel through an underground shopping street lined with small food stores, clothing boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Many cyclists casually zoomed past. I realized this small city has a great sense of calm to it. It reminds me a lot of the villages in Europe, with an added sense of stillness I've only experienced in Japan.

We passed a small artisanal coffee shop with smiling owners, a bakery that smelt like heaven wafting down the street, kimono shops, a cafe selling waffles towering with whipped cream and fruit, a small produce shop with perfectly packaged apples and ripe looking persimmons.

Since I had my French Canadian with me, I declared it was time for an apéro!

We walked over to U2 with two other journalists from Indonesia and Mexico.  U2 is an old warehouse converted into a shop, restaurant, bar, gourmet grocer, cycle store and cycle themed hotel on the wharf.  The modern space is gorgeous and feels like it belongs in New York or Paris.  We asked to see some of the rooms - which were all equipped with a wall mounting to hold your bike - before enjoying proper apéro at the bar.

The night ended with traditional okonomiyaki - a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning "what you like" or "what you want".  Tonight's special had spaghetti, egg, pork and vegetables.  While I had a separate meal due to my gluten allergy, I loved seeing these compilations, which reminded me of something my brother might have created after returning home from a night out partying with friends.

I went to bed early and woke up at 4 a.m.  I'm now sipping my instant coffee from the convenience store, writing this blog, and hoping to even attempt some Zazen meditation before another day in Onomichi.