The temple built by gods

by Jurgen Lett

“From now on my descendants shall administer the affairs of state,” said the sun goddess Amaterasu. “You shall cast a spell of establishing good relationship over people to lead them to a happy life “she told the god of the earth and the underworld Okuninushi. “I will build your residence with colossal columns and thick and broad planks.” According to Shinto mythology, when the other gods were gathered Amaterasu ordered them to build a grand temple at the foot of Mt. Uga. That grand temple is Izumo-taisha . We visited and were impressed with its vast scale, particularly as it was half the height it had been when it was built in 950AD. The sacred straw rope at the entrance to the Worship Hall is the largest in Japan and weighs 5 tonnes. Everything was monumental, befitting the gods.

The Grand Shrine of Izumo-taisha features the largest shimenawa (sacred straw rope) in Japan

As we rode into a town at the end of a day of cycling, I asked the local police where we could find Japanese-style accommodation. Invariably they directed us to a hotel or other Western style accommodation, costing two or three times our budgeted price. We found the cheaper Japanese inns, called ryokan, cost no more than youth hostels but had much better service. We searched out ryokan, and were never disappointed.

We began our ryokan stay with a wash in a traditional wooden bath, known as an ofuro. These were either a cedar box like that below, or a large barrel standing on end. Traditionally a fire underneath provided heating, so the water was really hot. Before getting in the ofuro I would sit on a low wooden seat and wet myself all over, using a ladle, with water from a wooden bucket. I would then soap myself, and wash off the soap with more water from the bucket. Only when I was perfectly clean did I get in the steaming bath. In this way many people share the same bath water. In larger ofuro several people can bathe at the same time, but male and female bathing is strictly segregated. It took a while to get used to the heat but when I did I enjoyed having a soak. I emerged from the bath feeling dizzy from the heat and it took a few minutes to feel steady.

Traditional cedar bath known as ofuro

After a bath I dressed in a yukata, which looked like dressing gown. Meanwhile our cycling clothes were collected, to be returned the next morning, washed, ironed and folded. This was just one of the many reasons we preferred to stay at a ryokan.

Yukata are worn after bathing

Japanese meals did not meet out substantial energy requirements. After a day of cycling we developed a big appetite and the small quantities served at dinner time were inadequate. After dinner we would go into town to find a restaurant where we filled up on rice, chicken and fish. We wore the distinctively-patterned yukata supplied by the ryokan, so everyone knew where we were staying.

We returned to our ryokan to find the living room converted to a bedroom. Sliding doors in one wall revealed a shallow wardrobe containing our futon mattresses and other bedding. The futons were laid out radiating around a low table where a charcoal fire burned all night. Blankets were draped over the table to prevent heat escaping. With this heat source we only needed a thin doona to remain warm throughout the night, despite freezing temperatures outside.

Our visit to Izumo-taisha was coming to an end, but we had not finished with the temple built by gods. Okuninushi was known as The Lord of the Central Land of Reed Plains, another name for Japan. Young lovers pray to Okuninushi, for he is also the god of relationships, by writing a wish on some paper and tying the paper to a branch of a conifer in the temple garden. They then clap their hands four times during prayer, twice for themselves and twice for their actual or desired partner. We visited the statue of Okuninushi at Izumo-taisha, and I did a lot of clapping.

Statue of the god Okuninushi at Izumo-taisha

Cherry blossom

by Jurgen Lett
Himeji Castle with sakura, or cherry blossom

The cherry blossom (sakura) has been celebrated in Japan for many centuries and holds a special place in Japanese culture. Sakura bloom for just a couple of days in spring and the Japanese celebrate this time of the year with Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties. Friends, family or work colleagues gather and sit on plastic mats under the blossoming trees, to drink, sing, chat or just admire the spectacle.

Location of the city of Kobe, Hyogo prefecture

It was early spring when we left Kobe and still very cold, so we headed for the warmer south. Our first destination was Himeji, 60km away, home to the largest and most visited castle in Japan. The sun was shining and the cherry blossom festival was underway.

Riding west along the Inland Sea coast we passed through Okayama, then turned north to make our way across the island of Honshu. We encountered rough pot-holed roads crossing snow-covered Mount Daisen. The hilly terrain left little room for fields and villages, so the inland was sparsely populated.

Mount Daisen

We stopped at the youth hostel in the village of Yubara, where the hostel father presented me with a bamboo flute, or shakuhachi, which I have to this day. Yubara has hot springs, or onsen, where groundwater is heated by volcanoes. Japan has many active volcanoes, and consequently many areas of hot springs. We enjoyed soaking in the onsen baths outside, and also enjoyed the steaming water inside which is piped to houses and hotels.

Typical onsen, or hot spring bath

The size and shape of a traditional Japanese house is determined by the number of tatami mats it can contain. Tatami are a traditional mats made of rush (igusa) and cloth. The standard tatami is 910 mm by 1820 mm and rooms are measured by the number of tatami which make up the floor area. Tatami rooms have many purposes, including bedroom, dining room and entertaining area. Each morning I would roll up my Japanese mattress, or futon, and store it in a cupboard.

On entering a traditional Japanese house I took off my shoes in the entrance or genkan, and put on slippers supplied by my host. I placed my shoes neatly pointing towards the door, as this is considered good manners. I walked the polished timber floor of the hallway, and left my slippers at the door of the tatami room. It is forbidden to walk on tatami in slippers and nor is it acceptable to walk in bare feet. I made sure that my socks were clean and free of holes, as I walked on the tatami. And when I went to the toilet I removed my house slippers and slipped on toilet slippers.

Toilet slippers are only to be used in the toilet

The Daily News

by Jurgen Lett

On a cold spring afternoon, the French merchant liner steamed into Kobe harbour. On board were my new friends Franz Gruber and Pierre Piroche. We wanted to ride all the major islands of Japan, but we had no bicycles. Franz had a bold plan to get sponsorship for our cycling adventure from a Japanese newspaper. The three of us tried our luck at the offices of the local newspaper, the Kobe Shimbun, where we were fortunate to meet Mrs Morioka.

The newspaper Kobe Shinbun is still operating, but has gone online

Mrs Morioka introduced us to the manager of the Kawamura Cycle Company, who hosted us with lunch of sushi, our first experience of raw fish. The manager then took us to his office and, after a few words of welcome, took out a tailor’s tape measure, and took measurements of my inside leg and height. Three days later we picked up our custom-made touring bikes. These bikes were robust, with brown steel frames and had three gears. They proved to be very reliable on the mostly gravel roads we traversed. Seventy per cent of Japanese roads were unsealed at the time.

Our bikes were custom-made by the Kawamura Cycle Company

Kawamura Cycle Company had shops all over Japan where we could get our bikes fixed for free. The only price we paid was to advertise the company with a small flag on our bikes sporting the Kawamura name and logo.

Back at the Kobe Shimbun office Mrs Morioka took a photo of us with our new bikes and we appeared in the very first edition of the Daily Look newspaper.

Photo from Daily Look sports paper
Article and photo in the first edition of the Daily Look. L to R Franz, Pierre and Jurgen

Then the manager of Kobe Shimbun invited us into his office and made an offer. The company was starting a national daily sports paper, The Daily Look, and they needed stories. The offer was that we write an article about our travels and take photos, and they would be published each day in the new paper. We would be paid a modest amount, enough to cover food and lodgings. The first edition was to be published on 1st May 1961, giving us one month to get organised.

Franz wrote most of the articles, although Pierre and I also contributed. As we wrote every day, we quickly ran out of interesting material, so we created stunts to make good copy. On one occasion we rode non-stop for 27 hours, covering 372 kilometres. Another time we ate noodles from the handlebars of our bikes using chopsticks . We were being challenged not just by the rough mountainous roads but by the need to develop novel stories every day.

How to find a long lost friend- Google it

by Ian Lett

It is December 2018 and my dad Jurgen has come to visit. He is 80 and lives in rural Victoria, Australia. He made the 1,300 kilometre trip by car and plane on his own. He has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease resulting in shaking, but this has been managed with medication. He has early stages of dementia with some memory loss. So it was important for me to ask lots of questions about his life and particularly his travels around the world.

I asked Jurgen about his travels in Japan. In 1961 he rode his bike across all of Japan’s major islands, with a French man, Pierre, and another German, Franz. Over 6 months they traveled 10,000 kilometres, meeting many welcoming people. Friendships were formed that persist to this day and Jurgen kept in touch with many of his Japanese friends. As a child I remember the many Japanese students that stayed in our house, hosted through the Japan Australia Friendship Association (JAFA). Twenty five years later I visited one of these students, Satoru, at his home near Osaka, and was welcomed like family.

Jurgen with loaded bike

While visiting me in Adelaide Jurgen said to me, with a tear in his eye, I would love to get in touch with Franz and Pierre. “Okay” I said, “I’ll Google it”. A few moments later I asked Jurgen how to spell their names, and any other information which might identify them. Armed with this information, I started searching. I started with Pierre, as his surname, Piroche, was less common. There were few results, but one was a nursery in Canada, Piroche Plants. I also found a flyer for an art exhibition of work by Setsuko Piroche in British Columbia. I knew I was onto something. Pierre had married Setsuko after they had met on the cycling trip. (Jurgen was keen on her sister, but left after many sad farewells).

When I told Jurgen that I had found Pierre, he was stunned. He couldn’t believe that Pierre was still alive, as both Pierre and Franz had worked for a year in the blue asbestos mine at Wittenoom, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Many of the workers and their families succumbed to respiratory failure due to asbestosis, and Jurgen thought his friends may have been fatally affected. So he was thrilled to be presented with not only details of Pierre’s whereabouts, but with contact details. He rang the number for the nursery and was connected to the receptionist. She asked Jurgen to hold the line. Then a voice came down the line, breathless and deliberate. It was Pierre, excited to be talking to his cycling mate. Pierre said he couldn’t talk for long as it was hard to talk. The asbestos had affected him.

Pierre Piroche


When Jurgen said he would like to visit, Pierre invited him to come and stay. So Jurgen is planning a trip to Canada in May 2019. He will travel on his own, and will stay with Pierre and Setsuko in their house just out of Vancouver.

And that is why my next series of posts will be about Japan in 1961. I want Jurgen to take printed copies of these posts to give to Pierre. The rest of the story can wait. Like Jurgen, Pierre does not use a computer and does not have a smart phone. They grew up with print, and that is how they prefer to read. So the Japan posts will be printed and collated. And together, they can read about their adventures, half a century ago.