A Cycling Holiday in Japan
Exploring Tokyo, Saitama, and Hiroshima by train and bicycle in 2014
How to shove a bike into a bag and a plane and a train
I spent a fair bit of time before leaving making new internet friends to ride with, and also researching the best rides. These ranged from challenging ones to family friendly ones. I thought some might be interested in some rides we did, and other details I know or discovered.
Japan is a great place to ride. There are epic climbs, beautiful descents, long flat runs and bike paths that can run for almost 100 kilometers beside rivers. An orgy of infrastructure work during the cash-flooded bubble-era supplied an abundance of seldom used paths and roads in some of the most breathtaking areas not far from major cities.
Cycling is a way of life in Japan. Most people regularly ride a bike, mostly for utility purposes, but road cycling is becoming increasingly popular. There is even an anime series about the trials and tribulations of a high-school racing team (probably the single most contributor to my son improving his Japanese-language skills). The roads can be equally, if not more, narrow and tight as the Sydney inner-city, but motorists drive with a maturity and understanding of vulnerability that you don’t find in Australia or the US. This is perhaps encouraged by the insurance and liability situation, like many European countries, where culpability lies with the larger vehicle in an accident (although in practice, my Japanese friends tell me, isn’t always the way the law falls).
First, the basics: I finally committed to buying a bike bag before leaving. I went for the Packworks Pika, which is a softbag that does its best not to look like a bike bag. Quite an upgrade from your standard cardboard bike box, it is well padded, and simple to pack. The biggest advantage is that it only weighs about 4 kilos. My son’s bike travelled in a Ground Effect Body Bag (the bike was padded with swimming noodles from the $2 shop), and all of that went into a cardboard box. Neither bike or bag/box was damaged in either direction.
The reason for the Body Bag, is that Japan Rail require bikes to be completely covered before entering the station, and definitely before getting on the train (the purpose-made bags are called rinko buruko). The Body Bag is enormous, and was easy to quickly pack, but it is relatively large, folding into a non-pocketable A4 sized square.
I went for a locally made, super light bag (made by Fairmean). It packs down to fit a jersey pocket, weighs 150g, and was great for making one way trips on the bike, returning by train. If nothing else, it was good insurance to have the bag if a mechanical struck and train was the only option back. It is worth noting, however, that you do just need to have your bike covered for the train, and you can viably use garbage bags and sticky tape, which are readily available from any convenience store*. It just doesn’t look very pro. Mine is a very pro bright pink.
* Convienience stores, or “combini” are almost a topic in themselves. They are ubiquitous in Japan, and apart from garbage bags, are a great source for canned coffee (and recently fresh coffee), electrolyte drinks, quality food (no really), such as fruit, sandwiches, bento boxes, and rice balls (onigiri).
I’ll try to cover the rides we did, and some we couldn’t (thanks typhoon). These include rides around the Tokyo area (Saitama, Chiba, Yokohama, Mt Fuji/Hakone); as well as rides around the Hiroshima area, including the increasingly famous Shimanami Kaido. This is mostly about mechanicals and getting lost in Japan.
In and around Tokyo
September 13th, 4:22 pm, 2014
First ride out was a simple course to check the bikes mechanically, as well as make sure the various versions of open source maps (OSM/Open Street Maps) I’d downloaded would work.
It was the first time I’d ridden in Japan with a map-capable GPS, which technically is better than a sweat-soaked page torn from a book of maps. I do find Garmin navigation pretty lacklustre, but knew it would be an important tool to find my way on some of the rides (I still got lost). I had downloaded a roman-character map of Japan, but was dubious it would work. Many English-region Garmins won’t display Asian characters properly, so would have been in a bit of a bind if it didn’t (or at least have to shell out for a commercial map). Luckily, the maps worked well, generally, and most errors I encountered were more Garmin or operator issues than map related-ones (this is less of an issue these days, having since moved to a Wahoo Elemnt, and now Hammerhead Karoo).
The main map I used is available here in the depths of the internet, and like I said, these days might be a non-issue — especially with the current crop of bike computers in 2021. The commercial romanised map for the Garmin Edge costs about $180. I rode with someone who had it, and felt the OSM was better.
I rode down the Edogawa river, which has shared path on both sides, from Tokyo Bay, up to join the Tonē river, it is about 60km long. There are a few facilities along the way (toilets, water), but not as many as some of the other rivers around Tokyo, but not far from the river banks you can find a convenience store, with drinks, and toilets, etc.
Like all the rivers, it is a good flat run, on protected paths that kids will enjoy. There are plenty of bridges so the ride can be as long or short as you like, generally on either bank. Weekends see the river flats filled with baseball games, kite flying, remote control ‘copter enthusiasts, wetland photographers, and old blokes walking backwards.
Post-typhoon it was just flooded, period.
My son and I rode the full length of the Edo river towards the end of our trip (after the typhoon). I was suffering quite the blockbuster hangover, and it wasn’t until a restorative coffee and chocolate bars that I fully appreciated the length of the river run.
A popular ride is to head up to the castle ruins (I’ll bet they are the only ruins with cycling facilities, toilets, drinks, and icecreams). It is a 100km return trip, and flat as pancake. It is almost worth it to admire the bikes that turn up. Plenty of Japanese steel, mostly Panasonic.
September 15th, 2:42 pm, 2014
Shiraishi Pass. It was the day after a public holiday (National Be Nice to Your Elders, or something similar, Day). It was a brilliantly bright and warm day. I headed out as early as I could, which ended up being about 6:30am or so. There is no daylight saving in Japan, so the sun is up and blazing in the wee hours, just like where I grew up, in Queensland, Australia. Technically it was Autumn, but Summer seemed determined to hold on as long as possible.
Getting out of my host’s place without them popping up to cook you a sit down breakfast required the stealth and determination of a ninja master scooting over a nightingale-floor. I do not posses such dexterity, and had accidentally roused them after quietly dropping some bread into the toaster. To avoid getting trapped for another hour, I had to flee on the bike with just that piece of toast and a wave goodbye. I had the brilliant idea that I would grab some onigiri (rice triangles/balls) on the way from the local shops.
I needed to navigate out to the river, which runs sort of adjacent to the Edogawa, which I needed to travel about 10kms closer to Tokyo. Both Strava routes and my Garmin really wanted me to ride down the biggest, most obvious road there was. Lacking any local knowledge, I resolved to ride on the footpath (legal-ish) if it got too hairy. It didn’t get hairy at all. I was lucky enough to see a bloke on a road bike ahead of me. He seemed to be heading in roughly the right direction so I followed him. With just a cycling cap to protect his noggin (legal), he set a cracking pace. I sat back a bit, but followed his lead. He pretty much led me directly to the river, which was great. He also inadvertently taught me a bit about Tokyo traffic, in as much that there is generally a lot of leniency, but keep your eyes peeled for turning cars at intersections. Most car drivers will give a little bow from behind the wheel if you let them in, motion them through, or otherwise make eye contact. I was doing the same for all sorts of reasonable behaviour as well.
That was the hard bit of navigation over, and the river was a straight run for about 50km or so. The Arakawa has more toilets and water stops than the Edogawa. It is also a bit busier, and there were still plenty of people walking backwards for the first 30km. To head towards the Pass, and the subsequent loop I had planned, I had to come off the river path and head into the streets. By the time I did this, the surrounds were positively rural, and the sun had really started to show what it could do.
It was hot, about 32 degrees Celsius, and very humid. Sweat was pouring off me, and I think I stopped at a vending machine for drink refills about every 5km or so. I looked forward to the cool of the mountains.
With the heat and my unquenchable thirst, I had completely forgotten to eat. It was an oversight that was about to humiliate me with its stupidity.
At about 95km in, I reached the base of Shiraishi Pass. I saw groups of cyclists at the bottom, filling bidons and generally preparing themselves. I had one full bottle, which I reckoned should see me up the pass — no point in carrying extra weight, right? I was very sure there would be a vending machine at the top, after all, they are everywhere in Japan. I started up the pass, planning on giving it a bit of a nudge. I took a long swig from the water bottle.
Just 20 minutes of climbing. I saw a climb review during my research, that suggested saving some energy for the flatter last 2km, where good time could be made up. Somewhere in my brain I had got the length (6.5km) and the grade (average 8%) mixed up. I headed up the hill like it was going out of style, looking forward to smashing it up this 6% climb. For some reason I had also decided the length was 4km. Boy, it was hot.
First crisis came when there was a fork in the road. I felt like I had been climbing for ages and surely must have been close to the top (wrong, just 2km in). The Garmin said go that way, but that looked like a lot more climbing. After a lot of poking and prodding of the screen, I worked out it was telling the truth, but then again, I remained unsure.
I continued up the climb. My water bottle was more empty than full. The occasional chill that ran over my body made me assume there was a cool breeze, but the sun was blazing, and stronger wafts of wind were decidedly hot. The climb was relentless. My Garmin temperature read 36 Celsius. It must be wrong, I thought. I came into an area where the tree canopy covered the road. My lips grew cold, like they were draining of blood. I started thinking about how nice it would be to have a little sleep on the grassy verge. Just a little shut-eye would be so nice right now.
In a moment of lucidity I thought about the one gel I had in my back pocket. That would be nice to have right now, I thought. But then the left side of my brain countered it with a no — not now — you need it in case you bonk. Besides, you will waste water washing it down. Good point, I thought, I need it in case I bonk.
I was pedalling squares at this point, still thinking about having a nice little sleep on the really comfy looking side of the road. I had slowed down so much I stopped. I stuck a foot on the road. I thought about what a bastard climb this was. The road here surely is 20%, or so it seemed. But it can’t be long now. Just get to the top and I could get a nice cool drink, and have a sleep. I started off again. I couldn’t clip in properly. As I wavered wildly over the road, trying to get my damned foot clipped back in, a cyclist lithely swept past, confidently hoisting himself up this wall of a mountain. That stung, because I had passed him early on. He looked back at me, probably with concern.
This was about the time I realized that I was bonking. And I am not sure what is worse, actually bonking, or the shame of bonking.
The passing cyclist was the jolt I needed, things were definitely not normal. I pulled the gel out of my pocket and almost inhaled the contents. I squeezed the packaging to get the last remnants of sweet, sugary goodness out. It was about 2km from the top. It didn’t seem to flatten, and it didn’t get any easier, but blood returned to my lips and I stopped feeling quite so cold. I got to the top, emptying the last drops of water into my gut in celebration. Looking forward to getting some more drinks out of the machine.
But there was no machine. There was only a place to sit. I sat, worried I was about to die, alone up a mountain. They would find me, nibbled on by a bear, a shrunken, dehydrated corpse.
There was a paper sign stuck to a pole near the seat. It was in Japanese, but with some illuminating pictures. A van, full of drinks in front of the very spot I was sitting. And a calendar with blue “O”s on some days, and red “X”s on other days. Today was a red X day.
After some rest at the top, and not knowing where the next water stop would be, I decided to turn around and go back down the pass, not completing the loop I had planned. There was no phone connectivity, so I couldn’t consult Google maps, and I was still paranoid enough to assume my Garmin-installed maps were untrustworthy (later I discovered that that they were exceedingly accurate and helpful).
As I found out on a subsequent ride I did, to not continue down the other side was also, totally stupid. A short descent would have had me in food and drink heaven. A little further on I could have jumped on a handy train, and left the nightmare ride behind. Instead of the train, I jumped on the bike, and headed back down the way I had come. Before I could get away, some other riders came up to the same spot. One of them stopped, reached into his back pocket, popped a cigarette into his mouth and lit up. I was worried I was hallucinating badly at this point, and I really just needed to get down. (Actually, I wasn’t hallucinating).
Being cooked and riding down a steep, technical descent is not recommended. There were only two cars on the way up as I was going down, and I almost finished up on the front of both of them. Fortunately, they weren’t going fast, and we avoided colliding. The descent was surprisingly long… it took forever. I got to the spot where I saw the groups of riders gathered. There were drink machines there, and I furiously started popping in coins and making selections. Coke. Water. Juice. Sports drink. And to finish it off, some sweet, sweet, canned coffee.
I’m surprised I didn’t explode. There was a quaint timber-built shop next door, full of crackers and traditional sweets for tourists. I walked in and bought two apples that were about the size of my head. I sat on their porch and ate them slowly, still getting over my disappointment that I had bonked and not realised it. I felt slightly embarrassed and a lot stupid.
On the way back — because, for some reason, I thought I would ride back home to recover some of the initial distance I wanted to ride — I dropped into a coffee shop. They were bemused to see a lycra clad cyclist dripping with sweat standing gormlessly in their shop. I unleashed some of my Japanese language skills on them, which are much like those of a two year-old with an alcohol problem. Regardless they were very kind to me. A sandwich, iced coffee, and a cinnamon bun served up, and they refilled my water bottles. I could have sat in that air-conditioned haven forever.
I trundled home, speed truncated, obsessed and worried I would again run out of puff and liquids. I didn’t, and the hot day started to cool a little. I dragged myself in to the house after over 200kms, took a shower and cracked a fine Japanese craft beer.
Shiraishi Pass, I thought, you and my bruised ego have some unfinished business…
Apparently there was a strong earthquake during my ride. I completely missed it.
September 16th, 5:43 pm, 2014
The day after the Shiraishi whipping, my son and I went on a recovery ride up the (local) Edogawa river. Very flat, in all respects.
Later, we went and gawked at the sumo.
And even later than that, I met with friends of friends, to plan the Great Tuna Bowl ride. And to drink .
September 16th, 7:45 pm, 2014
Don’t forget to take the house key.
Who’s the Boso? A terrific ride with Darragh on Chiba peninsula
133.5 km, +2097 m. Bike ride in 千葉市, 千葉県
September 18th, 5:03 pm, 2014
A great resource for riding anywhere in Japan are the various online “cycling in Japan” guides. The best community group is the Tokyo Cycling Club (TCC). I’ve lurked on the message boards for some years, and got some terrific information and ideas for rides. However, there is nothing as good as riding with a local.
I discovered that there was another rider on TCC that lived very close to where I was staying. Like really close. Small world. He was kind enough to offer to take me on a ride in the Chiba area, which was pretty generous, seeing as he didn’t know me from a bar of soap and we were going to be more than likely stuck together for about 5 hours. A tentative swapping of Strava profiles not only revealed his real name (Darragh), and my secret-agent name, but also that we were a pretty good match, ability-wise. He suggested a 135km course around the Boso peninsula, which is in Chiba, or the northern part of Tokyo Bay. The course came from another expat cyclist, called Phil, who is something of an expert in the area.
We met at the local train station at 7am. We were both a bit concerned that we would end up in the commuter crush, but reasoned that we were going the wrong way for it to get too busy. We would have to do a bit of train swapping to get to our destination, about an hour away on the local (slow) trains.
This reminds me, if you plan to catch a train with your bike in Japan, get cleat covers. It doesn’t matter what system you use, get covers (ok, probably not needed for metal cleats). There will be a fair bit of walking through the train stations, or swapping trains, and the cheese-like plastic used in most cleats will be worn down in no time. We could have ridden to our destination, it was only about 40km, but it would have involved riding around Chiba Port, together with the trucks, and not a lot of space to chat. Train was definitely better.
Given the length of the train trip, we had plenty of time to chat. We got off at a station called Honda; now, that was an easy station name to remember. You could see from the station that the urban facades tapered away quickly into quiet rural tranquility. We marched across to the adjacent Family Mart (a chain of convenience stores), and got our bikes out of their bags… assembly was just sticking the front wheel back on. Darragh explained we would be heading out to the coast, probably have some lunch there, and come back in a loop. He asked if I had the route on my Garmin. I did, but I hoped this didn’t mean he was going to drop me at some point.
He didn’t drop me. The ride was terrific. Darragh explained that this side of Tokyo was pretty unpopular with the TCC riders. Not that it lacked challenge or beauty, but that it was deemed too difficult to get to by those that lived more centrally. While it was true there were equally beautiful rides pretty much in all the fringes of Tokyo, there may be none that are so lightly trafficked, with a good mix of rolling hills, palatable climbs, and lush bamboo groves lining small, empty, roads. When he had asked me what kind of ride I wanted to do, I’d told him something scenic. This certainly delivered.
Lots of rolling hills eventually got us to the east coast. We descended into Uchiura Beach, clearly now in the offseason. Smaller fishing boats were pulled up to the shore, and some large hotels (resorts?) stood quietly sentinel over the sea. We went for the “combini” lunch, which was a grab-bag of rice balls, sandwiches and ice cream. It was still hot, but clouds had taken the bite out of the sun. Of course, a descent in means an ascent out, and we hauled our full bellies up a wonderfully long corkscrewing road on the other side of the bay. There were a few tunnels on the way back, but seeing as there was almost no traffic, these weren’t daunting. The only issue was that long, dark tunnels, are actually, quite dark.
About half-way through our return loop, a large warning sign was planted in the middle of the road. I’d arrived first, and by the looks of it, it didn’t look too good for us continuing our trip. A quick map check confirmed the only way out was to go back the way we came, or possibly up a goat track over a mountain, and unusually, that track seemed to be of dubious condition. The sign didn’t say, do not pass, as it turned out. But it did say the road was blocked further up. We decided to continue on, because, you know, how bad could it be? We’d only have to ride back if it didn’t work out. Off we went. We rode for about another 10kms until we came to another sign, planted in front of a pretty new looking tunnel. This one had barriers. I didn’t need to be able to read Japanese to know it was strongly suggesting this was the end of the line. The tunnel looked alright. No rockfalls to be seen. We joked that the slightest sound might make the tunnel collapse. Of course, we jumped the barriers and snickered as we rode into the unknown.
The tunnel didn’t collapse on us, and we emerged onto the other side, into a road which looked just like the one that got us there. We stopped and checked the surrounds. Nothing much to report. Darragh told me to watch out for monkeys. I asked him how big they were. Big bastards, he said. I don’t know if he was pulling my leg, but I was waiting to be taken out by a big bastard monkey for the rest of the ride.
The naughty side of the tunnel looked like it hadn’t seen much traffic for months. A lot of sticks and debris on the road. The road slowly descended, and we kept our eyes peeled for any gaping holes that would have thrown us down into the valley that was opening up below us. The mystery was solved as we came across what looked like a bunch of cyclocross barriers, a few more warning signs, and a big bit of missing road. Well, we had come this far, and there were some fairly fresh caterpillar-truck tracks on the road. Probably safe for a couple of skinny cyclists to walk over, surely? And so we did. The naughty boys. Not even the big bastard monkeys seemed to care.
An uneventful return back to the train station, with more scenery that was just as beautiful and quiet as the stuff we had passed through. I struggled to quickly pack my bike before the train pulled in. Darragh had already packed his and picked up a beer from the on-platform convenience store (yes, a pattern is forming here). Getting on the train with seconds to spare, we cradled our bikes in the standing-only area of the back carriage, tried to match schedules, and planned another ride.
September 22nd, 3:29 pm, 2014
I mentioned going to drink craft beer after seeing the sumo. The pub was called Popeye, and somewhat famous in Tokyo for its extraordinary range of Japanese beers. The reason I was there was to meet Sanshiro and Oshida-san. I’d started exchanging emails with Sanshiro before we left Sydney.
He is a friend of a Japanese friend, and was introduced to me as an avid cyclist. As it turned out, he runs marathons and owns a bike — but is a member of his (rather large) workplace bike club. He originally suggested and tried to help me ride a Japanese Audax “hill climb” brevet, but I couldn’t fit it in. Instead, he invited my son and I to do a ride with him and his friend “to eat tuna”. I thought this might be a local ride of less than 10km. After the meeting at the Popeye pub, this ride became know as The Great Tuna Bowl Ride, and ended up being slightly over 120km.
The course started in Yokohama, South of Tokyo, and dropped down to the historical resort-town of Kamakura. From there, we circumnavigated the Kanagawa peninsula, stopping at Misaki village to have some boat-fresh tuna sashimi and sushi. On the way back we passed the Yokosuka area, and the enormous American military base planted there. The full loop returned us to Yokohama station, where my son and I refined our bike bagging-fu, and got the train home.
Visitors are very kindly accommodated by most Japanese I’ve met. Many will go out of their way to help you out, and entertain you. This might include doing the longest bike ride they have ever done. Oshida-san, Sanshiro’s colleague was definitely the ride leader on this one. Unfortunately, he had picked up a bit of a cold, but was still going to do the ride. I was starting to feel pretty guilty after hearing this, but they wouldn’t hear of cancelling the ride. Another rider, Sato-san, was brought into the ride as the “engine”. He pretty much sat on the front and powered on, and, on, and on — ostensibly showing us the way — but I suspect he enjoyed trying to burn my son and I off his wheel.
We had taken the train to Yokohama, which was about an hours ride on a local train. It was a public holiday, so the trains were mercifully quiet. Our designated meeting spot was the Yokohama branch of Y’s Road, part of a chain of road bike shops that all have impressive floor inventories, each shop similar, but slightly tweaked to service a speciality area (clothing, fixies/urban, folding, road, custom, second-hand, and of course my favourite, the “maniac” shop).
There were a lot of roadies out in Yokohama that morning. You could feel the heat starting to come into the day, but the weather looked glorious. We spotted our group on the other side of the road, yelling, “Hellloooooooo!”, in English and making exaggerated, welcoming waves. A few extra non-riders had also arrived to give us a send off, so we were celebrities for a short while. Then Sato-san got on the front and guided us through the many traffic lights and turns to get towards Kamakura. He held a steady 35kph, and I wondered if we were going to do the whole ride at this speed. After twenty minutes he had handily (accidentally?) burnt off Sanshiro and Oshida-san. Fortunately, Sato got a bit lost, so we waited for them to catch up. He got a good ribbing (in English) about riding off the front, and we more or less stuck together for the rest of the ride.
The roads were pretty clear, but started to get busier when we reached Kamakura. We visited three different temples and shrines, each one with an impressive history and lineage, but because you can only cycle so far into a temple’s grounds, we also did a lot of cleat walking. Like I said earlier, get cleat covers. Many photo opportunities were taken outside the temples, the guys were friendly, relaxed, and definitely not in a hurry.
The ride down to Misaki was a lot of rolling hills, and the main roads were packed with cars going nowhere fast. I can’t imagine spending a public holiday crawling along the coast in a car, but there were plenty of people doing it. The sea was more or less flat, but surfers didn’t seem discouraged from trying to ride the smallest break that came their way. When we got to Misaki, there was some confusion as to the exact location of the restaurant. As it turned out, we were stopped almost directly in front of. It had a seating capacity of about 14 people, and we took five chairs at the counter. It was only about 11am, but there were more than happy to serve us an impressive amount of freshly-caught sushi, miso soup, rice, and vinegar soaked cucumber salad for about $18 each. While that might sound steep in comparison to your local sushi roll takeaway, this fish was extraordinarily tasty and fresh. My son also generously donated a walnut sized ball of wasabi to my bowl. The woman who ran the shop was pretty curious to hear where we had come from, and how far we were riding (this was translated back and forth). I think she’d assumed I was an American from the military base before someone revealed we were Australian. She seemed to enjoy that fact. Being temporarily exotic is a benefit of coming from a country with a tiny population.
On the second part of the loop we did a few excursions out to more photo opportunities, mostly bridges with good views. As we climbed up away from Misaki, each hill had wind turbines perched at the top, their giant rotors gently sweeping through the breeze. Riding the bikes under these was a surreal experience, it felt like the future, as envisaged in 1980s sci-fi films.
The traffic by the sea was even busier on the return leg, and it was getting quite warm. We made a lot of combini stops. The return leg also featured a lot of tunnels — which in contrast to the Boso tunnels — were heavily with traffic. Sato had no hesitation plunging into each one, regardless of traffic. For some reason I expected the cars to take advantage of the dark tunnels, perhaps try and slip past in the same lane while they couldn’t be observed… but they didn’t. They sat back, gave us space, as always.
No ride is complete without a ferry ride, and we jumped on a quaint little ferry to save a 20km circumnavigation of a bay. For the princely sum of $2 (including the bike fee), the captain welcomed all visitors and putted about 100m to the other side of the bay.
In Yokosuka we stopped to look at Battleship Mikasa. It is encased in cement to the waterline, but an impressive battleship from the 1890s. It has odd touches, like lace balustrades for the captain’s balcony; and is the is the last remaining bloody-big-battleship of that era anywhere in the world. Oddly enough, it was built in the UK, paid for by the Chinese for losing the first Sino-Japanese War (!?) and credited with finishing the Russian-Japanese war, after which it promptly sank on its moorings while in port. Whoops.
After that, it was a long stretch of road that injected us back into Yokohama. Oshima (the one with a cold) was getting pretty strung out at this stage, and we stopped at a combini for before the last 20km. The mid-ride remedy, I discovered, was an icey-pole called a Garigari-kun, a classic Japanese treat, which costs about 60 cents. In terms of size/weight to cost ratio, it is a winner. And if you get one with a lucky popsicle stick, you get a second one for free. None of us were that lucky, and who knows what was in them, because we rocketed back to Yokohama. We said our goodbyes at Y’s Road, which by this time, was doing a roaring trade.
A note on some of the places mentioned in this post: Kamakura is well worth the visit, on or off the bike. The temples, famous Buddha statue and general ambience of this age-old resort town is wonderful. The sushi is fantastic. The roads are busy on a public holiday, and may well be a ride best done early on a weekend. It is easy to get to from Tokyo and a good mix of urban and rural locations. We ended up riding about 115km in a loop to Yokohama station (about 30mins by train from Tokyo station, or a 30km ride.)
Hiroshima and the Shinanami Kaido
Planning for a longer trip aka super-cushy touring
Part of our initial holiday planning included getting away from Tokyo for a week, for everyone’s sanity. After looking into quite a few options, we settled on the Hiroshima area, and also Shikoku, the fourth largest island in Japan. Happily, the route in-between the Hiroshima area and Shikoku is a series of bridges and expressways called the Shimanami-Kaido (translating as the “over the waves highway”). Even more happily, a quiet, cycle-friendly route that incorporates the bridges has become one of the most famous (family friendly) bike courses in Japan. Had to do it!
In reality the ride could have been done as an out-n-back in a day (~160km), but it was a little different with some young/irregular cyclists coming along.
We planned to go by bullet train from Tokyo to Hiroshima. From there we caught a local train to Onomichi, the start or end of the Shimanami Kaido depending on the way you ride it. We went to Hiroshima because we wanted to visit, but there are quicker ways to get to the Shimanami Kaido from Tokyo.
My son and I brought our bikes with us, and at Onomichi we hired bikes for the rest of the family for an outrageous $5/day (plus a $10 deposit which is forfeited for a one-way trip). These bikes should be pre-booked to avoid disappointment, but there are guides in English on how to do this. They are not road bikes (more on this later). If you want to hire a road bike, there are a few options available (you might need a Japanese speaker to help with this).
We stayed on one of the islands halfway across, and finished up in Imabari on the Shikoku side. We travelled further into Shikoku, went by ferry to another island covered in art (Naoshima), back to the mainland, and back on the bullet train within a week (using 7 day Japan Rail passes).
We only planned to do lightweight touring, stay in hotels, and eat in restaurants — very credit card. Backpacks were the easiest and most versatile option, and tried to pack as lightly as we could, but in retrospect we probably carried too much. The consequence of doing a trip like this is you start to wonder why the hell we have so much “stuff”, but that type of introspection is only arrived at whilst sprawled out on a bullet train at the other end of the trip.
Things not to take in a backpack include heavy D-locks. Either we were very lucky, or most establishments are happy for you to keep your bagged bikes in your room, or at least, the hotel’s luggage storage. A cable lock is secure enough for most situations (of course, overnight might be a different issue). There are plenty of bikes shops, you don’t need to take a lot of tools, etc. I took too many.
Most hotels we stayed in had laundries; although another option if you are desperate are these “manga cafes”, which are halfway between an internet cafe and a business hotel. You get your own booth, and they offer internet connections, all the comics you can read (in Japanese), movies, snacks, drinks and, most importantly, laundries. Apparently there is a need.
Clothing in Japan ranges from the very traditional, to conservative, to rather eclectic. This means you can wear an odd mix of cycling gear and normal clothing, and no-one will bat an eyelid. I tested this quite a lot, and seemed to get away with it okay. So with this in mind, I carried two t-shirts, one jersey, one pair of bibs, shorts and a few undergarments. I didn’t need jeans, because I could always whip out the leggings-under-shorts look. I reasoned I could buy additional things if the laundry situation got a bit dire. Fortunately, it didn’t. As I didn’t want to carry all the children’s stuff either, I bullied them into mercilessly reducing the amount they were packing. My son did the best, but also smelled the worst at the end. For reference, I carried my Deuter Race Air backpack, which has a capacity of about 12L.
Hotel costs were pretty reasonable, but we did stay mostly in rooms that had a toilet, but the bathing facilities were in a different part of the hotel and communal (male and female are separate!). Before you recoil in horror, this is very common in Japan, and there is a very particular protocol to washing oneself thoroughly with (supplied) soap before jumping into the pool-like hot bath (ofuro) or hot spring (onsen). Sitting in an onsen after a long day of riding is one of the most pleasurable experiences available in Japan. No visit would be complete without trying it at least once. Another thing to note is that hotels are expected to provide basics such as pyjamas, toothbrushes and toothpaste. (That’s grams of savings right there!) We stayed in a combination of hotels, and traditional hotels, or ryokan. The difference is that ryokan usually provide Japanese breakfast and dinner (in the most elaborate way), and the rooms have futons laid out on a tatami mat. The futons are put out by the staff for you after you have had your (usually in-room) dinner. In some places their folding/unfolding technique is so elaborate it is worth it just to watch this happen. For four of us we paid about $100-$200/night; although it was definitely not peak season. A word of warning too, vegetarian is not really spoken at most ryokan (but you can, contrary to popular opinion, find vegetarian food in Japan).
September 26th, 11:10 pm, 2014
Hiroshima is one of the cities in Japan, like Kyoto and Tokyo, that is definitely worth a visit. The local essential dish is okonomiyaki, which is close to a vegetable-filled savoury pancake, only chunky. Tastes a lot better than it sounds. We didn’t ride much in Hiroshima given the time we had and the sightseeing we wanted to do (but there is plenty of riding to be done in the area). Of course the Peace Park and museum are essential visits as much as they are harrowing. The floating torii (gate) at Itsukushima, is also essential, and a tranquil disconnect from the events of 70 years ago.
I found a pub called Raku that served only local brews, shown on a menu of business cards, and even better still, it was right next to a road bike shop! Happy days.
We stayed at the ANA Crowne Plaza, where my clumsy internet booking stuff up (I managed to book two single rooms) was honoured for all four of us. This is probably because of my Academy Award-worthy role as a dumb tourist. $200 for two rooms, four beds. However, a large security guy did swoop on my son and I as we entered the hotel, grabbed our bagged bikes, spiriting them immediately out of sight… as if they were a couple of stinking garbage bags. That was a bit disconcerting. I eventually worked out they were in the luggage storage.
We arrived in Hiroshima at about 5pm, and we left the next day at about 2pm after seeing the sights we wanted to see. We caught a local train to Onomichi, which took about 1 1/2 hours. From memory it would be about an 80km ride, and was tossing up the possibility of riding it. Didn’t, though. Still wish I had.
This brings me to another important service to note in Japan: luggage transport (takuhaibin). You can have your luggage transported for you by a number of similar services, so you don’t have to carry it on the train/bus/bike etc. The price is usually quite reasonable, at about $20 a bag, or $30 for a bike box. Of course, you might be without your bag for 10 hours, or if you time it badly, a day. It becomes a good option if you are touring, and is exceptionally handy if you need to deal with peak hour trains and the like. Also good for getting to and from airports. Luggage can generally be held/stored by these services as well.
September 27th, 7:13 pm, 2014
Onomichi is a seaside town, well-known for being the location of the post-war cinema revival in Japan, in fact they made the classic “Tokyo Story” there (not to be mistaken with Toy Story). The local dish is ramen made with a fish stock base, rather than the usual pork. Delicious, without the heart attack fat content.
It is, however, a sleepy sea-side town. The main industry in the area is steel. In Hiroshima they make wings for aeroplanes (maybe there is a carbon fibre industry here too?), but the big industry seems to be making boats. Big boats. Bloody big boats. Tankers. Onomichi looks like it has seen more active times, but there is somewhat of a revival going on, and it is driven by cycling.
Just across from the Onomichi station is the Green Hill Hotel, from which the Rotary Club organised bike hire operates out of the car park. Further from that is the U2 Onomichi development, which houses the Cycling Hotel, restaurants, and a Giant Bicycles Store. We didn’t stay at either of them, because the Green Hill Hotel was booked out, and the Cycling Hotel was a bit expensive for the four of us (although if there was only two of us, it would have been the place to stay). Instead, we stayed at Hotel Daiichi, which is between the two. It had the crappiest Trip Advisor reviews of the three, but we found it quite good. Although it has to be said that the staff didn’t look like they were the most effusive hosts.
We got a family room, which was just a huge tatami room, with two TVs. We had the sumo playing on one, and the news on the other. It had its own bathroom/shower as well. We prebooked breakfast, which cost $8 each, and was very much home-style Japanese breakfast fare: rice, fish, sausage, eggs, miso, pickles, salad, etc. and it wasn’t too bad at all. They were happy for us to keep our bikes (bagged) in the room.
The is well worth a mention. It only opened in April this year, and it is really one of those developments that anchors the cycling experience in Onomichi, and feels like it will attract more infrastructure. It is teaming with cyclists. You can ride into reception, and leave your bike on a rack while checking in. You can keep your bike in the room, and there are bike servicing corners on the accommodation floor. As a converted wharf warehouse, it has the look and feel of the Walsh Bay finger wharves, except it doesn’t jut out into the sea.
The restaurant there looks pleasant, and there is a nice deli attached, which carries a variety of picnic-worthy food. We had decided we were going to eat ramen somewhere else, so just opted for a drink at the bar. They didn’t offer craft beer, which was a bit sad, but everything else was great. The Giant shop is well stocked, with cleats, clothes, and whole bikes all available. There are mechanics there too. As I said earlier, you can hire road bikes from here, but they are considerably more expensive per day than the Rotary ones.
The whole foreshore has been upgraded and there is a promenade area that heads into town. On the morning we left, there was an enormous cosplay parade there, almost as if to remind us that yes, we were still in Japan.
We were keen to get going in the morning, because it looked like it was going to be a hot day. We had booked the rental bikes for 11am, but went and got them at 8am. Lucky we did, because you can’t book the type of bike you want, and the “good” ones were going quickly. There are three kinds of bikes: mama-charis (the classic Japanese single-speed step-through with a basket); geared hybrids; and mini-velos (like a full sized bike with 20 or 24-inch wheels). We got a hybrid and a mini-velo. They also have kids bikes (small enough for a five-year old).
Interesting facts about these bikes — they were all donated by companies like Bridgestone (and there are hundreds of them spread over different locations throughout the route); they were mostly manufactured locally — or at least that’s what I understand from the retiree who was helping us.
Our retiree was very concerned that we should get a family photo before heading off. He wasn’t content with a lot of amiable smiling. He signalled for us to punch the air and yell, “Banzaiiii!” We did that but he missed the shot, so we went back to just smiling, and headed off. Picking our way through cosplay crowds, the first thing was a short ferry ride across to the first island. It couldn’t have been further than about 200m, and the ferry master was keen to know where we were from. “Australia? Good.” Glad we didn’t pay him before settling that.
We were told to follow the blue line. The blue line is painted on the side of the road and goes for the whole route. There were signs in Japanese and English everywhere, just to reinforce you were heading the right way. As I was to discover, the blue line also had optional “Island Explorer” loops, which deviate from the most direct route, but are also where the magic riding is.
We had a booking at a ryokan, on the third island on our trip, Ikuchijima. For those interested, the ryokan cost $360 for the four of us (three over 12, and one under), including dinner and breakfast. It’s $200 for two people, including food. We were hoping to get there before 4pm, expecting to stop for lunch somewhere.
Considering we had two riders who would have done the course out and back in a day, and two riders who hardly ride except for utility purposes, a good degree of patience was exhibited on both sides! Our average speed on the first day was about 15kph. Although it was the end of September, it was still quite hot in the sun. Our family also seemed to have decided that if we saw bike racks (the hanging from the saddle kind), we would stop, as if by obligation, and hang our bikes. There were a lot of bike racks.
The course is predominantly flat, with very light traffic. On most roads you have a choice to ride on road, or on the footpath. This gave great comfort to a slightly nervous 10 year old. The climbs up to the bridges are not incredibly steep, but did see one family member prefer to hoof most of them. Our 10 year old rode them like a champ, and showed mastery of the gears on her mini-velo. We did see people on mama-charis (single speed) ride up the ramps without issue.
If you have researched the Shimanami Kaido, you would have read that the bridges require tolls to be paid. However, while we were there, the tolls had been suspended for cyclists, and crossing them was free.
One of the most curious things we came across was a playground with a giant white brontosaurus plonked in the middle of it. The whole area is famous for citrus groves, and there were plenty of lemon, lime and mandarin production going on.
We didn’t really settle on where we would have lunch before heading out, which was a bit of a mistake. The more islands we crossed, the less there was in terms of restaurants and cafes — particularly in the middle of the islands. There were, however, the ubiquitous convenience stores, so we went with a lunch from one of them — onigiri, fresh fruit, chocolate, and iced tea. After that, it didn’t take long for us to get to Setadacho.
On our approach to hotel, we passed a gelato place called Dolce. Predictably, it was packed with cyclists. We had to stop, they had bike racks. After all, where else were we going to get our salty vanilla ice cream fix?
Shimanami Kaido, getting lost solo with a thousand mosquitoes
44.3 km, +351 m. Bike ride in 尾道市, 広島県
September 27th, 11:44 pm, 2014
We checked in at about 3pm. I was keen to get some more cycling in, and quickly changed into a racier outfit, and headed out. It would be dark by about 5pm, so I decided a quick loop of the next island. The “Island Explorer” loops weren’t marked on any of the maps we had, so I presume they are a new addition. The one I did on the next (and largest island, Omishima Island), was devoid of traffic. I had good views across to where I came from, followed by a climb up and over the centre of the island. I must profess I got slightly lost when I thought I would deviate from the designated path. I stopped in a valley that was infested with mozzies. They drained enough of my blood to have me retrace my steps and head back to the regular course. Good thing I did, too, because the light was fading, and I didn’t want to have to find my way with a little blinky light in a strange new place.
I managed to make it back to the hotel side of the bridge as the sun was setting. Stopping to take a photo, I was approached by an old bloke who offered to take my picture for me. We struck up a conversation, and I explained I was from Sydney. He told me my Japanese was very good — which it is not — as he took my phone off me. Smile, he giggled, and squeezed off about 100 stills. I don’t think it’s working, he said in Japanese. He told me to check them, and offered to take more. No need, I thanked him, and took off for the hotel.
September 28th, 1:40 am, 2014
I was keen to have a bath, but everyone else had disappeared for more ice cream, and without a lock I was loathed to leave my bike outside unlocked and unattended (I had to get my bike bag from the room). So i did what any adult would do in my situation, I went looking for a beer. There was a festival going on, so this side of the town was pretty quiet. I found a bottle shop, that was full of lemon-infused tradition alcohol, and beer. The bloke behind the counter wanted to know how far I had cycled. I misunderstood what he said, and told him Sydney. That’s a long way, he said, you must be thirsty…
The hotel featured a lemon bath, which was a bath, in which they floated lemons. Apparently this was a big feature of the place. The rooms had their own toilets and a shower, so you didn’t need to mix it up with naked locals if you didn’t want to. The dinner was superb, lots of fish, crab, and dishes that boiled and bubbled in front of you. The kids meal, which is supposedly a cut down version of the adult one, didn’t seem greatly different. After dinner, the dishes and table were cleared away, and the futon laid down. We slept well that night. The breakfast the next morning was just as good, and just as traditional. A good low-GI base for the day ahead.
As a footnote, there is a Grand Fondo run in Shimanami Kaido around the weekend of 25–26 October, which is a mass ride and exhibition, etc. entries close in August, and it is held every year. October is a good time to cycle in Japan, because not only is there this event, there is also the Tour de France Saitama Criterium (well attended by the pros), a whole lot of hill climb challenges, and the weather is a bit more cool and stable.
September 28th, 5:51 pm, 2014
Day two started off relatively cooler than day one. We had slightly more distance to cover, but I kept that to myself. There was a low fog just sitting over the water. It obscured the bridge to the next island, but there was no wind. The first few kilometres took us up to a bike rental point, called Sunset Beach. Indeed, it would have offered good views of the sun setting over the next island. Apart from the bike rental barn, there was a small shop offering drinks, ice creams, tourist advice, and supplies (tubes, tyres, hats, etc), and a giant yellow sculpture thingy. The beach was abandoned, but it had plenty of chairs, concrete areas, and a generous expanse of sand (ok, I’m not applying Australian standards). Looked like a nice swimming spot.
The bridge on this side had mandarin groves planted up the hills. We lost one of our group of four going up the bridge path. Apparently she had opted for the lowest grade side path, and travelled a fair distance down it, convinced that it would deliver her to the bridge, many tens of metres above. This alternate course made a feature of the mandarin groves, but ultimately did not lead anywhere. Once we regrouped and got to the other side, we found that the bike path, that I had used the night before, had been ripped up, and was in the process of being upgraded, workmen everywhere. Perhaps they were getting the surface a bit nicer, but the original seemed award-winning to me.
We cycled down after a bit of directed walking, and told to take care quite a bit. We passed a well parked, and seemingly venerated helicopter. Just below the bridge was another ferry port, selling fish and ice-creams (not as a combo). We turned in the opposite direction to the way I had gone the night before, on the island explorer route, and headed for Imabari.
The road cuts out most of Omishima island, the next bridge was different to the others, rounder, probably older, and much shorter. Again it was a short trip across Hataka island and the road snaked towards Oshima Island. I would have preferred to spend more time , and if we were a faster group (we were still averaging 15kph), that would have been an excellent option. I imagine carrying a picnic lunch out to some of the peninsulas would have offered spectacular views.
However, I knew that Oshima Island had a bit of a hill, some might call a mountain, that we needed to cross the base of. I also knew that the elevation may have aroused some rebellion in the ranks — so I did what any brave tour leader would do — I said nothing. To put the climb in context, it is about 5% for 1km. There’s a nice big sign at the top made of wood, with a map of all the exciting things to see. Our family voted to just roll down to the port on the other side.
The port, or town, on the other side had another well-catered-for bike stop. This one was also a bus stop. And a fishing boat stop. Ice cream, cold drinks, cafes, etc. and some awesomely clean toilets. The next bridge extended above us, and at 6.5km, it is the longest and tallest of the trip. On the other side is Imabari, and our hotel, The Sunrise Itoyama — which was the primo cyclng hotel until the U2 Onomichi stole its crown.
I must admit I didn’t like the last bridge. It was long, very long, and high, so very high. I rode with our 10 year old, who thought it was terrific. I was keen to get off, with visions of swaying suspension bridges in earthquakes. The bridge has one foot on a tiny island midway, and some pretty steep looking emergency exits I preferred not to think about. Apparently there is an elevator you can take down too, with your bike. Our hotel in Imabari was offering guided sunset tours. There was no earthquake.
The Sunrise Itoyama is directly at the end of the bridge, after a little corkscrew ramp down. The hotel is another bike rental site, and you can return or pickup bikes here. It is, however, a good six kilometres from the Imabari train station — and guess what? You can return bikes there too. We held onto our rental bikes, and planned to return them the next day at the train station.
The Sunrise Itoyama cost all four of us $100 for the night, food not included. We had four singles in the room, and a toilet. Shower/bathing facilities were downstairs from us, and like most of Japan, shared. Not a soul in there when I went. I enjoyed a bath, with a slight view of the bridge over the privacy fence. There was also a laundry with dryers downstairs, and I took the chance to wash all of our clothes.
The foyer of the place had a panoramic view of the sea and the bridge we had crossed. Along one wall was a display of Giant bikes, on the other wall was a display of the 2013 Shimanami Kaido event. Looked like it pissed rain the entire time. Didn’t stop people riding, however.
The restaurant cafe had a small shop in front of it, where you could buy cotton tea towels, neck wraps (cotton), and other woven stuff the area is known for. You can get a QikDri Shimanami Kaido t-shirt, or a more organic musette (purchased). We had dinner at the restaurant, which was offering cafe-style western food. It was good, not super-cheap, but not super-Sydney-expensive. I think a pasta dish was priced about $15. They offered local craft beers, which were pretty good. They said I could keep the bottle, which I have to assume is a common request, as it had a strange Jap-lish verse on it which made no sense whatsoever…
The next morning, I went for a ride out in Imabari. I got a bit lost, but inadvertently stole a KOM from the one local on Strava. I rode up to a dam in the hills, past rice fields, solar farms, quiet bubbling streams, and kids walking and riding to school. They all said, “Konnichiwa”, or yelled a rousing, “Hellllllooooo!”, as I rode past. It is the same relaxed rural friendliness that you experience all around the world. It was nice to be lost amongst some nice people. I chose to descend from the dam on the main road. It was slightly rough and fast, plenty of traffic, but not a peak hour of Tokyo-standards. It took me a while to find the hotel again, but left me wishing that we had more time to do riding in the area. You get the impression that riding around Imabari, and eastwards further into Shikoku is very, very good.
We were heading off to Naoshima (the art island) via Takamtsu, slightly constrained by our rail pass only being open for a few more days. The rail pass is infinitely cheaper than buying regular fares we could have sprung for a 14 day one, and probably not been so limited in time. Also, when travelling with bikes, it might be an idea to go for the green car (first class) option. It is more expensive, but the carriages are less busy. Always make sure to book the rear seats if you can, because you can stash your bikes between the seats and the wall. It can get a bit awkward if you don’t (there is no official luggage storage area).
Having said that, after doing all the arty stuff we wanted to do, we travelled in a single day from Naoshima, to the next port Uno (which has a velodrome by the way, and Keirin), to Okayama, to Tokyo. Over 700km in 7 hours station to station, including a ferry ride. Not bad for public transport. Our carriage from Okayama was empty until Kyoto.
Back in Tokyo
Tokyo Cycle Club ride to Shiraishi and Honjo — Japan
166.0 km, +2140 m. Bike ride in 市川市, 千葉県
I didn’t plan to do this ride, but was hoping that would pop up on the Tokyo Cycle forum. It was about 140km (plus 30km riding to the start), and most of the route was following the Arakawa River, and then onto the climb that broke me, over that and onto another longer, but less steep climb. Similar in concept to the Honeysuckle and Corin Dam climbs on Canberra’s Fitz’s Epic, just longer, and a bit steeper…
Darragh had shared a quicker route to follow from home to the Arakawa, and from there I followed the river to a designated Family Mart convenience store. I was first to arrive, so popped in a brought a canned coffee and a couple of rice balls. It was only 6:45am, but I wasn’t willing to risk not eating enough again. Shortly after I had scoffed my food, a woman pulled up on a lime green Cannondale. There were a few other cyclists around, but she was the only one in full kit. It was already 7am, scheduled meeting time, and I was a bit worried I’d come to the wrong place. I asked her if she was riding with TCC in my best Japanese. Yes she was, she replied in impeccable English. Ok, in the right place. Maybe only two of us riding? Soon a guy on a black Cannondale turned up (sensing a theme here?). This was Peter, the ride organiser. From their conversation, I gathered the woman was a new-ish rider, and hadn’t ridden with Peter before. This distance, with a lot of climbing seemed ambitious for a new rider, I thought. That turned out to be a needless worry. I introduced myself to Peter, a quietly-spoken American. He admired my titanium bike. We talked briefly about Merlin, and American-produced titanium frames, as we pulled out of the parking lot. We headed back up the Arakawa River, to pick up the others.
The “Spaceship” is some sort of flood mitigation building with big water gates built into the levees. I’m sure someone will set me straight on the proper name. The rest of the group was waiting there. From memory another four English riders, and another Japanese one, making 8 of us all up. Pretty much the perfect bunch size, I thought. We continued on up the Arakawa River.
Nothing beats riding with locals, and it was a stress free ride not having to navigate, and then a far superior detour towards Shiraishi Pass than my previous one. There was very light traffic, and our bunch maintained a reasonable 32kph towards the hills. Again, someone pointed to the south and said, “usually you can see Fuji from here”. Ah huh.
We stopped at the drink machines at the base of the climb. Without wanting to risk anything, I filled both bidons. One with water, the other with the famous, sickly-sweet isotonic drink, curiously called Pocari Sweat. As we started up the hill, someone said from behind me, “Come on you skinny Aussie, show us what you can do.” And being totally goaded into doing what I swore I wouldn’t do, I started enthusiasticly up the early bit of the climb, which is also the steepest. Stupid. I rode away from the others, but soon someone was on my wheel. It was Leicaman, otherwise known as Marc. He rode a Canyon, just like my (other) bike; and was resplendent in a pink-striped Rapha Jersey, bibs, and was wearing those Giro shoes with the laces. He had changed them that morning to pink, to match his jersey. Of course, my heart rate was soon at 95%, and I started to slow down. “What’s happening?”, asked Marc, “I thought you were going to lead me out!”, he chided, smirking. He’d pulled up beside me at this time, and I pretended I wasn’t trying to suck more air into my lungs than could possibly fit. “You’re fading a bit”, he said, but it was a gentle ribbing. “Save some for the last two kilometres, that’s where you will gain some time.” He headed up the hill, and as if to make a point, did it while singing to himself, as he disappeared around the corner. Two kilometres in, and my legs were asking impolitely to stop. Of course, in trying to keep up the illusion I was actually macho, I kept going.
On the bright side, I didn’t feel like I was going to bonk. But on the other hand, I found I had only a very hazy memory of the climb, which reinforced how out of it I was on my first attempt. Coming around another corner I saw Marc up ahead, he had his camera out and was lining up a shot. This was remarkably like riding with Philip! I wasn’t in any mood to try and pull out my phone, so had to be content with Marc using me as his model. He rode on ahead again after grabbing his share of megapixels. At about 5km in or so another rider out of our group passed me. So this is what they were saying about saving some for the end. It was true of course, the grade eased off a bit, and if you hadn’t wasted your legs in the fist four kilometres, then you could power up the last two. I reached the top feeling like I had been left behind. I hadn’t, of course. Sweat pooled out of my skin as soon as I stopped. It was still humid, but not extraordinarily hot. Happily, the drinks van that was missing on my first attempt was waiting at the top. The place swarmed with cyclists, at least 20 or so. I didn’t really need to take on more drinks, but it felt wrong not to buy one. I enjoyed it while the others came up the hill. I did feel like I hadn’t climbed very well. In retrospect, and after much Strava filtering, I felt I did well in my second attempt. See Shiraishi Pass? I told you I’d be back.
The main climb of Shiraishi Pass is an average of 8% for 6.5km, according to Strava. By comparison, Strava says the main climb of Honeysuckle Creek (on Fitz’s), is 7km at an average of 6%. Totally different conditions, I’ll admit, but I did Shiraishi a good 10 minutes faster than my Honeysuckle PR. Must have been the Pocari Sweat.
While we were waiting for the others to come up the pass I observed a cyclist get to the top, recover, and then light a cigarette. So I wasn’t hallucinating the last time. People really do that. Still! Smoking in Japan has been cut down drastically over recent years, with street smoking banned In many areas (allowed only in shielded corrals). My fellow cyclists also reacted with surprise. The smoker wasn’t with us, of course, but there was a lot of murmured derision around us. Quite a cultural shift.
Just after we had regrouped and were about to leave, one of the guys discovered his rear derailleur spring had snapped (cross-chained uphill?). While being at the top of the climb is better than being at the bottom, the ride was over for him. But because he is a maniac, it didn’t stop him from coasting down the descent at a fair clip, shooting video as he went. I make an appearance at about 6:30, braking hard as someone ahead suddenly lurched backwards. No problems on the way down, though, and it was a beautiful run, except for some strange speed bumps on the way down.
The town at the bottom had plenty of restaurants and drink vending machines. We didn’t stop there, and instead ventured on about another 10km to a pretty well-stocked convenience store. This one had cycle racks outside, another sure sign we were at a popular stop. We ate a quick lunch, refilled ourselves with all sorts of exotic drinks, and got going again. The sky had clouded over, showing the first signs of an incoming typhoon, which was due to start dumping rain the next day (and it did!).
The second climb was longer — nine kilometres — but only an average of 6%. I have no idea what the name of it was, but it was through a thoroughly pleasant forest. The road embankments were covered in hair moss, and there was the sweet smell of wood or something foresty, and the occasional buzzing bug. Marc and I chatted up the climb, mostly about climbing, until the road kicked up, and I fell silent with effort. Marc occupied himself by whistling. Bloody freak.
The climb seemed to be endless, but the road turned and ramped up multiple times. Tall rainforest trees lined the roads, and it was quite dark in amongst it all. The road was totally abandoned, apart from us cyclists. When we reached the top of the climb, the lead guys regrouped, they had decided they were going to go another way. I was unsure of the places they were talking about, and exactly where they were thinking of going, so I decided to wait for the others. Standing in a forest, alone, waiting for the others. Of course, in the silence, you begin to hear all the other things that go on in the forest. There was a lot of rustling as something large moved through the canopy, and then the low growth. I could only assume it was a monkey, but didn’t see anything to confirm it.
I thought we had reached the top, but when the rest of the group arrived, I realised it wasn’t. About another 300m ascent or so to go. We stuck together on the next part and wound our way up to the top. As we came to the top of the mountain, we had a great view through the trees towards (I think) the south. I took a photo but it didn’t really do it justice. The rider that turned up just after me at the start looked like she had been run through the mill by this last climb, but her face lit up with the view. “Well, that was worth it”, she said. The road wound on and we had a view to the north, Pete pointed out the intersection of three prefectures, and pointed approximately at our destination.
“It’s all downhill from here.”
And downhill it was. Unfortunately the road Pete liked was closed. It had a few car-swallowing holes in it. Nothing like seismic activity to liven things up a bit. We descended down an alternate route. There was a lot of water on the road, and some interesting rubber divider things, which I presume were for snow. Everyone else descended like demons. I was a bit more cautious. It was, like the other descents, quiet, smooth, and if you chose, fast. The drop down opened up to a few river crossings.
Nice old red bridges (well, I’m sure they weren’t that old). The trees in this area were starting to turn. It felt, for the first time that visit, Autumnal. I wished that we had more time to watch the seasonal change.
We were going to do one more climb, but the consensus seemed to be to stay on the flat. Pete worked out a new route and we all followed him. He sat on the front and pulled the group along for many kilometres. I felt a bit bad for sitting in, but had absolutely no idea where we were going. Eventually, when he seemed to be fading, I offered to help him out. He said he appreciated the offer, but agreed that I had absolutely no idea where I was, and stayed on the front, anyway, he’d got his second wind, and felt fine. When we got to the train station, I realised he was gunning to meet a train timetable. We missed the train, but only had about 20 minutes to the next one. We packed our bikes into their bags. I chose a can of English Milk Tea to finish. 165km done for me. Lovely.
We piled into the back carriage of the train. There were already two bikes in train from further up the line. Adding ours made it look a bit like a bike shop. The train was reasonably empty when we got on, so it was easy to get seats, but over the next few stops, quickly filled up. After about 30mins, Chikako, one of the Japanese riders, pointed out that someone was sitting on my bike. Low and behold, a slightly drunk man in a suit was perched on the handlebars. Bear in mind that the front wheel had been removed, forks on the ground, and his whole weight was being taken by the handlebars and forks. I watched as the train bumped and jostled, the bike was leaning over onto one fork blade. His unmentionables were probably resting on my Garmin!
Chikako sprang up, and very politely explained he was sitting on a fragile object (whether or not it really is fragile, an outraged Pete murmured to me, he had never seen this before). Chikako implored the bloke to take her seat, which he refused. Of course, it was my problem, so wasn’t going to let her give up a seat. I jumped up and offered him mine, he didn’t seem to mind that proposition, and happily took my seat. At least he was off my bike. The rest of the trip was uneventful, and we ended up in central Tokyo area, specifically at Ueno, at night.
I thanked Pete. It was nice to ride in such a welcoming group. If you ever make it to Tokyo with a bike, do a TCC ride. It is well worth it. I’m only sorry I couldn’t do more.
I pondered this in Ueno, thinking that the holiday was coming to an end. The impending typhoon was going to wipe out a few days of riding, the opportunities to get out were reducing greatly.
I considered riding back home, but took the soft option, got on a the train, and looked forward to a beer.
Ride with Taku on the flooded Edogawa to the castle ruins… Japan
103.3 km, +496 m. Bike ride in 市川市, 千葉県
There are a few more rides that we did. My son and I thoroughly exhausted the Edogawa river options, and I did a few loops through and into the local area around my mother-in-law’s house. Of course, we barely scratched the surface, and many more rides await another visit. The big difference between this holiday to other visits was being able to use an electronic map. As lazy as it sounds, having a map-capable device strapped to the handlebars, removed (to a degree), some of the anxiety associated with being a stranger in a not-so-strange land. Downloading other people’s rides and following those gave more confidence to roam further.
On the other hand, I’m no fan of the Garmin Edge (in my case, an 810) — the way the maps render on-screen is sub-par, and almost unintelligible at night; it randomly forgets it is supposed to navigate for you; and when you need it, the on-board routing is reliably nonsensical. I often resorted to my phone to get some clarity — if it still had battery power. Maybe that says more about me than the device. Whichever way, it wasn’t completely useless. It did open up the options.
I should add that Google Maps doesn’t offer cycling routing in Japan (at least in 2014). I don’t know why, but in many ways, it’s not that important.
The ones that got away
One of the rides which I really wish we could have done, was ruled out by the typhoon. In fact, I was still hoping to do it post-typhoon, but some flooding had me thinking twice. I wasn’t quite prepared for floods, while I would have had my son with me, it would probably have been bad form to have him test the current.
The course was to start in Hakone, one of the most commercial tourist destinations close to Tokyo. We would have left early enough to avoid the crowds and made our way up Mt Hakone, west-ish of Mt Fuji. We’d go up and over the mountain, and then onwards to the base of Fuji-san. A brief side track up the shoulder of Fuji, on what is possibly the steepest road in all of Japan. At least that’s what it would feel like. Presumably the giggle-factor of attacking a 20% grade would wear off pretty quickly, and we’d be heading back to the low road and hoping our burning legs would return to normal. The course then would snake up towards the lakes at the base of Fuji, a most scenic circuit if there ever was one. Then we would loop back, returning past Hakone, the easy way. I’m pretty convinced that it would be a good day out.
And that is it. A holiday that took more time to write about than actually live through. I hope it was useful to people who may have thought about riding in Japan.