The land of the rising sun

by Jurgen Lett

I was intrigued by the mysterious land of Japan but I knew little of the country and its’ people. I knew that it was mountainous and I loved the idea of cycling around the many islands.

I had been touring around south east Asia on my bike, including Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and had arrived in Singapore. I was sure that this was the end of the road, and that I must turn my wheels back the way I had come. However I felt that luck was with me when I heard that a liner from the French merchant shipping company Messageries Maritime was in port. It was heading for Japan, the land of the rising sun.

Poster for Messageries Maritime

The French liner accepted passengers on a tight budget, with accommodation on stretchers in the hold of the ship. I had just enough to pay for the ticket, but not enough to bring my bike. I took my bike to the police headquarters in Singapore with the intention of picking it up on the way home. But I never returned to Singapore.

Onboard I met my future cycling companions Frenchman Pierre and German Franz. They were friends who had been travelling and working together for years, including working at the Wittenoom Gorge Asbestos Mine. Wittenoom, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, is now a ghost town, but in the 1950’s was the Pilbara’s largest town. Franz worked underground mining blue asbestos, while Pierre worked in the processing plant. Illness from breathing in asbestos fibres often takes years to develop and causes a long and painful death. I shudder to think how these two men have been affected by the fibres.

Asbestos mill, Wittenoom

Together with the other 20 passengers in the hold, I had the run of the aft section of the ship. Simple but adequate food was served at a little window. As the weather was good we spent most of our time on deck. We docked in Hong Kong, then steamed on to Kobe, Japan, arriving in the afternoon of 29 March 1961.

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