What a trip that was, myself and my photographer friend Paolo Penni Martelli headed over to Japan for a 4 day trip to ride aorund Matsushima Topwn, whch is about 300km north of central Tokyo. We ate, We rode, we drank, we had a heck of a time, Paolo took some awesome photos, and you can read all about Day One of four below.
DAY ONE of THE BIG ADVENTURE in MATSUSHIMA!
“Lee, can you help! We are bidding for a contract here in Matsushima, tendered by the local government, it’s to produce materials to help encourage more foreign cyclists and tourists in general to come to our area. Would you be interested in coming here for a few days to do some sightseeing and some riding and then to write about it?”
“Ah, yeah, sure, sounds great! I have a photographer friend who might be able to come, his stuff is fantastic, are you interested? He’s Italian though…”
“OK, I’ll get more details together and I’ll be in touch.”
That call came from Toru Watanabe, a guy I met at the Mongolia Bike Challenge in 2014 and again in 2015. He runs a design company and had heard of this tender from a friend, then got in touch with me late last year, and here we are, me and Paolo Martelli, my friend with the camera, cosy in our fancy hotel room in Matshshima, a small town in north west Japan.
Yes, we’ve been flown over here and are being treated like royalty, it has to be said, and we also do receive a nice little envelope with some notes in it at the end of the week - this is my disclosure, it has to be admitted - and trust me, if it was an average kind of trip I would say, and if you doubt me you can read some of my kit reviews - but this first day has just been stellar.
Off the charts good. Proper, proper good.
First up we headed to Shogama Temple, a sprawling 700 year old complex of meticulously manicured gardens, impressive shrines and photo opps galore. I lived in Japan for ten years and Ive seen the odd temple or 83, but to see Shogama through the eyes of Paolo, who is on his first trip to Japan, brought with it an infectious kind of giddiness that I just couldn’t fight off.
Suddenly I stopped seeing the forest and focused on the trees, or rather, on the grain of the wood that came from trees that made up temple roof and shrine doors, and then on the ancient stones with their well-worn grooves from the hundreds of thousands of feet that have traversed them since the 14 century, and then on the pigeons on the roofs, and, at the end of it all, on the soothing sense of calm that begins to envelope you like a warm blanket around your shoulders on a cold day.
We sat down at the end of the journey through the temple grounds for some mocha - Paolo for some reason has an obsession with rice that’s been pummelled with wooden hammers and thus rendered sticky and, alright I admit it, pretty darn tasty. I’ve had my fair share of mochi but the sesame coated selection far sent my taste buds right back to school. They were heaven sent, he fact that the stall where we bought them from was run by three robust little old ladies with rosy cheeks, twinkling eyes and mischievous little smiles made it all the better.
“Can I take your photograph?” asked Paolo.
“Oh no!” they replied with fluttering laughter. “We are far too old and you are all so young, it wont make a suitable comparison.”
Personally I did not see age, just three people of delicate and refined beauty.
From there we headed back towards the car park but on the way we spotted a long, think store full of candy, toys and all sorts of bric-a-brac, another golden photo opportunity. As Paolo got shooting I grabbed a bowl and began filling it with children’s sweets, telling myself that I was immersing myself in the local culture when in fact all I was doing was indulging my sweet tooth. Looking around the store you knew that the proprietor, a distinguished gent in his 70s, was never going to become rich from this venture, but imagine all the children he made happy each day! This was a treasure trove of brightly coloured plastic toys and gems of sugar, every parent’s nightmare yet every child’s rainbow-drenched dreamland.
“This shop is actually quite beautiful,” I said to the owner, who sat behind the counter.
“Ah thank you. My family has owned this shop for 114 years.”
“Really? That is wonderful! So your family has supplied candy to many generations of the town’s children!”
He chuckled. “Yes,” he said still smiling, that’s right.”
“And will your son or daughter continue after you, when you retire?
“No,” he replied, “I will be the last. That’s right.”
He nodded, I smiled. All good things must come to an end. We said our goodbyes and continued to walk through the town. It was a brilliantly blue sky above but quite cold, beyond what you’d call ‘crisp’ and on the way to ‘brass monkey’, so when Toru pointed out a sake brewery that had a small store, we eagerly went in.
“This place has been here for 500 years,” he told us.
So here was another establishment providing small portions of happiness to the town’s inhabitants, but of an altogether more alcoholic nature. In we went to check out the local brews, and were given a great lesson in the subtle differences between each drink by the staff. Paolo baled out after two glasses, claiming he was drunk, so I had to man up and finish there rest.
From there we headed to check out the coastline in the late afternoon, and what with the perfect blue skies and calm ocean, it was yet more smiles all round and another load of photos. We didn’t see any but you could just imagine dolphins breaking in the bay, it was really quite stunning and very peaceful.
Hard to say just what the highlight of this day was but for me, the food we ate up at a small restaurant just above the rugged coast was definitely up there. I ordered a plate of kaki-furai - fried oysters - that came with little accompanying dollops of salad and pickles and of course white rice, and they were incredible. Paolo went for tempura which he said was not bad, but when he tried one of my oysters - just the one, mind - there was nothing but envy in his eyes. Proper, proper good.
And that was that, Day One of Lee & Paolo’s Tour of Matsushima done and dusted. With full bellies and tired eyes we settled into our hottel beds overlooking Matsushima bay, wondering what was in store for Day Two.