japan, cycling,

Cycling across Japan

Daddy Aug 08, 2016 · 16-min read
Cycling across Japan

 

Distance: 1330mi (2140km)
Days: 23
Days Wild Camped: 19
Hottest: 97°F (36°C) Koka, July 30
Furthest: 100mi (160km) Oshu to Sanohe
Number of mosquito bites: ∞
 
Click the dots to read about my sleeping spots.

The ferry's ramp lowered on the dock at Fukuoka. Now it was just me, a hiking backpack, and a bike I bought used. The excitement started to build as a I wheeled out on to the hard ground of a country I revered. It was intimidating to "do Japan" without much experience cycling, and then trying to succeed with just a hiking bag strapped onto the back of a bike with different colored rims. United Colors of Benetton? Never heard of that brand.

But it was happening.  It was time to intrude a place I had so much respect for. Time to add a badge of pride that I cycled across Japan. Riding acround Taiwan didn't turn me into a real man like I'd hoped, but this trip surely would.

 

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Japan was full of a weirdness that wasn't just anime, cosplay, or chindogu (the art of useless inventions). It was everywhere in daily life, sometimes not even to be seen. These tombstones weren't part of a tourist attraction. They were hidden from plain sight alongside the highway. Carved to have a visual aspect, but still tucked out of the way.

 

 

The Itsukushima temple was one of the few places I intended to go to. No, it doesn't have a petting zoo. The deer have become all too used to humans from eating their garbage. The torii (arch) is a Shinto device used to delimit the secular and the sacred.

 

 

It had rained here and there, but nothing like it rained one night. It was about time to stop for the night when it began coming down in sheets. I turned off the main road to find a shelter of some sort and came to a covering by the road. The rain picked up more and I began to wonder how exactly I was going to pull this one off. I waited under a shelter thinking to myself of the logistics of getting into a waterproof sleeping bag in a downpour. Could I get in it under this shelter and sort of potato sack race to a nearby grassy field? Would that work?

I even began to consider just camping beneath this shelter itself and dealing with the repercussion of the poor choice in the morning, but was interrupted in my thinking by a man yelling from across the way in Japanese. “Wakari masen, America” I shouted back. This handy phrase just means, “I don’t understand. America.” He rushed over to the shelter where I was standing. I pointed to the little area I was standing in and said in English, “This- you?”. He nodded. “My house, ok?” he said pointing to some buildings across the road hidden by the rain and darkness and then made an awkward gesture for sleeping.

My first instinct was to do the polite Asian thing and refuse until he offered again, but I knew I was in a pickle and could deal with the guilt of rudeness better than a bout of pneumonia. I followed him through the downpour into his house and he and his wife began frantically preparing a place for me on the floor. There was no way I could communicate that they should take it easy, so I just had to uncomfortably watch them run about as if I was their unforgiving master and they my little house elves. One would disappear into the bedroom and return with bedding, but it was over soon enough. They prepared a cushion and some blankets to lay over the woven mats.

 

 

Sleeping on the floor with only a thin pad wasn’t a makeshift substitute for a bed, it’s the traditional Japanese way of sleeping. Besides, the setup was rather comfy for someone used to sleeping on hard surfaces such as Chinese beds, the road, etc. and it was far better than being out in that rain. This was undoubtedly providence at work. 

In the morning I tried to sneak out at about 6:00 trying not to awake my gracious hosts and so took special precautions to prepare my stuff outside to minimize the noise. Just a minute or so from preparing to head off, the man returned in his car. He’d already gone out and bought an American breakfast for his American guest: two burgers and a coffee. (In hindsight, I should have told him I was French, then maybe I could have gotten a croissant or something.) Soon after, the second and third generations of the family came out sleepy eyed to meet the poor example of Americana, we can only hope they refrained from making too many generalizations from their encounter with this vagrant.

The feeling of overhospitality began to give way discomfort in me because it seemed these people were genuinely interested in taking care of me. I awkwardly made chitchat in basic English and was relieved when we came to a natural break in conversation so that I could say I needed to continue my journey. They waved and said “ki o tsukete” through their smiles, which means “have a safe journey”.

But first: a picture with their grand-daughter. 

 

 

I can surf a bit, but not well by any means. Trying to mix surfing into a bicycle tour means you lose time without even resting. But who could say no to the black sand beach near the mountains.

A small restaurant rented out paddleboards, but if you asked the right questions they’d get a longboard for you from their house.

 

 

At some Japanese restaurants, like the one below, you order by putting coins in a vending machine and press a button. A slip of paper drops into the slot that you fish out and give to the cook behind the counter.

 

 

It wasn't on the list, but I couldn't say no to a beer tour at 10:00am.

One of the first questions they ask you is how you got there. Since I rode in on a bicycle, I was strictly forbidden from drinking some of the freshest beer in Japan - not even a sample. As it were, my mode of transportation was on a list grouped together with cars, buses, and motorcycles rather than with passengers and pedestrians. I guess because they feared that if I had a beer I’d kill a family of four in an out-of-control, head on collision leaving both vehicles in a mangled wreck at which point the brewery would be held liable. So for anyone who visits the brewery on a bicycle, I suggest you lie to the staff, and tell them you arrived by hovercraft. That one wasn’t on the list.

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Why are they all the same price?

 

 

Somewhere along the forest road, many of the houses adopted charred siding with stark white plaster. It was unique to any other place I'd seen through out the trip. This village just decided that it wanted to look like that.

 

 

I'm not sure where this pic was taken, but I remember distinctly that it was probably in Osaka. There is a famous Japanese dish called fugu sashimi- or raw pufferfish. The allure here is that it’s an extremely poisonous fish that can only be prepared by the skillful hands of licensed chefs. What I had could have napkins soaked in vinegar, and I’d be none the wiser. It was neither tounge-titulatin' nor gum-numbin' like they say, but the amiability of the old chef was quite enough to excuse the bill that eventually came.

 

 

As my trip was just a couple days from ending I was faced with a decision that questioned what my goals were for the trip. The easy way or the hard way. It was a literal fork in the road.

If I went right, I could take a flat, direct route to easily get to Aomori (the finishing point) by early evening and perhaps making the night bus to Tokyo.

If I went left, it would mean going through mountain passes on two already overworked legs all for the sake of seeing what that blue splotch on the map was all about. And perhaps have to camp yet another night before the end. 

I couldn’t decide so I slept right there at the fork in the road and would decide in the morning.

In the morning it was clear that I couldn’t just take the easy way out and be left wondering what I’d passed up all for the sake of convenience; I went left. As I was stocking up on carbs for the trip, the owner of the store explained to me what I was getting myself into. Up, down, up, down, up, down, straight he motioned with his hand laughing a bit and leaving me with little comfort.

The ride was indeed difficult, in fact it was the most difficult thus far. Though I could think of times when I was in more pain, it didn’t provide any comfort. The drive came from a hope that this was the end. Road signs that read “10% grade” didn’t seem to do the road justice because as I later found out, it only means 6 degrees. Looking sideways when riding up the hill, I would have guessed somewhere between 45 and 90 and had to ride in the lowest gear for only short stretches at a time. It must have been hard to watch.

The lake was after the second hill and was nice but not fantastic. Jaded from all I’d seen before, I wasn’t THAT impressed. Just a capital E shaped lake surrounded by mountains. Do I express regret? Well, no.

It was on the second or third ascent that I realized that riding like this was exactly how I wanted to end my trip. It wasn’t that I had gotten to see a giant lake in the mountains or ride through the silent alpine forests surrounding it, it was that I’d earned my ending for this trip. It’s something a motorcyclist touring Japan can’t appreciate the way a bicyclist can. The effort I put in at the end was a nod to all that I’d worked for to get to this point.

Sitting atop the last hill and getting that feeling of enjoying the fruits of one’s labor, I knew that it was my reward, the grand finale. On the unrestrained downward descent I jovially sang aloud “That’s Aomori!” to the tune of the Dean Martin song, as the rush of air deafened my ears from hearing if I was on pitch.

 

 

When I arrived at Aomori that night I headed straight for the most “Japanesey” restaurant I could find. The one with glowing samurai heads was a safe bet.

Inside it was nearly as dark as the streets because the walls were all black, and only a few lamps tried to lift the place out of complete darkness.

Everyone sat around a large rectangular bar and a sole, older woman took the orders from inside. Her English was as good as my Japanese so we came to an impasse very quickly. Fortunately I happened to look over and see a white girl sitting near me who spoke fluent Japanese and who helped me order a clam dish and fried mackerel. The hostess brought out a small plate of beef as a gift. The gift however, comes out of your own pocket; you pay for it. And it’s rude to refuse it. I thought it was a bit bizarre but went along with it.

The trip ended with a bus to Tokyo. I visited a few museums the day before my flight including a visit to the National Museum. It houses, among other famous works of art, Japan’s most iconic painting -the Mona Lisa of Japanese art if you will- The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Having so far only seen the image on a postcard the gift shop, I realized I’d missed it and asked what part of the museum it was in. She told me that some of the most iconic pieces were in a warehouse getting refurbished. Seems like refurbishing everyone’s favorite paintings during the peak season is a savoury ploy of the sadists running the museum, but who’s to say.

In the morning I made my way to the train station and bought a rather expensive ticket to the airport. I boarded the train with my bike and continued the great journey onward.

 

 

THE END

 

 

Just kidding, I didn’t actually board THAT train.

I arrived at the train station early enough, but didn’t realize how anal they were about bikes going on train. The bike had to be covered, which I knew so I paid $40 for a bike bag. I wheeled it to the handicap entrance of the ticket terminal and was stopped because the bike hadn’t been covered. Ok, I’ll just do it here instead of at the platform. Put the cover over and wheeled it back to the entrance. Nope. Front wheel has to come off. By this point my extra minutes were disappearing and it was becoming a race against the clock.

Carrying the bike and front wheel in one hand and loaded down with a weighty pack of everything that used to be on the back, I ran through the masses in the train station drawing attention from anyone and everyone. It didn’t matter, in a few minutes I’d be out of here. I got to the platform and was relieved that I was an impressive four minutes early. (And to think I could have walked.)

As the next train arrived I had to resist the nervous energy to just get on it for I knew it probably wasn’t the right one. As my train arrived, a Finnish guy came up and asked me about my time in Japan. I cooly told him what I did but he didn’t seem all that impressed, and he asked me which train I was taking. “The same one as you” I thought to myself and pointed to the red bullet train. “Oh, I think it’s leaving he said”. And looking over I realized that the doors had opened and closed almost silently without me noticing. My split second fears became realized when it slowly glided out of motionlessness.

My expression of distress was a bit too much and probably made that Finnish guy feel guilty for inadvertently putting me in this situation. He was kind enough to pick up the bike that had gotten “tipped over” while I was “thinking of a new plan”.

The next train was in half and hour, which would shorten the time I would be at the airport to just an hour.

The ride to the airport was completely nerve racking. I didn’t think I’d have time to check in a bicycle and still catch my flight. After all, the ticket window closes just forty minutes before departure, which was just ten minutes after the trains arrival at the terminal. Had this been an island airport in a third-world country, there would be no doubt that ten minutes would be enough time to lug a bike across the airport, but I couldn’t risk it here. A bike was going to slow my pace. As the doors of the train opened there at Terminal 2 I carried the bike out of the train and left it. Yeah, just left it right there in the walkway.

It wasn’t a fun move, and it just meant that the bike and I would part sooner than expected. So if you’re ever in Tokyo, check the lost and found bin at NRT for a red and green wheeled bicycle. It would be happy to have a real home.

Check out 5 places where I slept!

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Daddy
Who is your Daddy?Follow
Technophobe gracing tech companies in the Global 500, Fortune 500, a Kickstarter unicorn, and several little dinky places. Bike touring is my sanity factory.