Japan By Bicycle – A Trip Of A Lifetime

I recently penned a few words on my cycle touring trip to Japan for Total Women’s Cycling. Actually, I tell a lie – I typed a few words, but anyway… Here’s the original edit.

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“Sumimasen, camping?” I croak hopefully to a raffish Japanese gentleman examining us with barely concealed amusement. Unlikely though it seems that this run down wood yard moonlights as a campsite, we’re keen to double check before moving on.

We’re at the base of Mount Fuji, itself an arduous climb in 30 degree heat on a bike carrying everything you own. We’re desperately keen to hop down from our bicycles and stretch our limbs in the shade and at present, persistence seems our best, and only bet.

Gesticulating wildly (and frankly, unnecessarily) I repeat a few words from my limited vocabulary whilst our friend continues to smile. “Yes, camping,” he says. “But scout camp!”

Later that evening, lounging in our own private nirvana – a scout camp minus scouts, we greedily slurp noodles from giant polystyrene bowls, faces filthy and sunburnt, clothes stiffening under several days’ sweat. We smell and we don’t care. Only five days into a three-week cycling tour in Japan and we’ve acclimatized; with bikes, beers, tents and ramen we’re in heaven.

When cycle touring, you can’t plan for every eventuality and sometimes when you’re on the road, just ‘freestyling it’ can make for the best adventure. Having said that, our trip is the culmination of a lifelong desire to see Japan and several months of research, so that’s why we’re relaxed about on-the-hoof decision making.

We’ve spent the dark months of winter furiously scouring the Internet for tips on cycling in Japan, reading blogs, ordering books from and testing gear ahead of our trip.

On Google Maps, we’ve ‘walked’ some of the streets we’ll be riding to find out if they’ll be suitable, and after trying some truly rotten offerings, we’ve settled on the Pocket Earth app for programming routes and coming up with a rough schedule.

Now we’re here, all that planning has given us the flexibility to travel with just an iPhone for navigation, though we’ve stored plenty of offline maps on an iPad in case we need it.

From the moment we land, it’s a whirlwind of excitement and confusion. In a daze of jetlag we head off our first morning on a Shinkansen, or bullet train from Tokyo – we’re headed to Shimoda and the Izu peninsular for our first taste of touring in Japan. After the palaver of sealing our dismantled bikes in bags and hauling them all the way through a busy station, as we watch the buzz of the city fade from view we’re beyond excited by our first glimpse of the ocean.

The Izu peninsular is surely one of the most beautiful places on earth – the deserted road winding along the coastline offers dramatic views each time we summit one of the many hills, but we’re so pumped on riding we can hardly bear to stop for a moment. Having said that, we do keep it fairly slow and steady as our fully loaded bikes are heavy we don’t really need to be anywhere – all the planning is just something to fall back on, and we can pick and choose how far we go.

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Our first camping spot is one of the only flat places we spy – a little ledge tucked away behind some houses where we hope our Micro Rocket stove won’t disturb the wildlife whilst we cook up the first of our many bowls of ramen. As we settle down in our sleeping bags, we’re sung to sleep by cicadas and an unknown bird whose particular phrasing will accompany us all the way through our journey.

The second day dawns and we quickly establish a routine that we’ll stick to for the rest of our trip – rise early, leave quietly and head to a ‘konbini.’ Japanese convenience stores are well stocked with delights, and all serve hot or iced coffee. And contrary to popular belief, Japan is not expensive; we’re able to eat like king and queen from these stores, the only pricey item being beer which we save for a campsite treat in the evening.

Once on the road, we ride anything from 60km to 130km, depending on our hearts desire. Without cycle computers or Strava or any rigid schedule, we pedal just for the sheer hell of it, taking as long as we please. Arriving anywhere is at once gratifying and disappointing – our camping spots are beautiful and we’re always hungry, but it also means we’ve finished riding for the day, and cycling is what we love, and what we’re here for.

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From sleepy Izu, we ride to Mt. Fuji and the aforementioned scout camp, and heading inland from the coast we get our first experience of riding in traffic. Cyclists in Japan are numerous but most tend to stick to the pavements, only hitting the roads at intersections to cross and though drivers are polite on the whole, it’s fair to say that we ruffle a few feathers so boldly cycling on the roads. Though it’s perfectly legal, it’s clear some drivers would rather we ambled along the pavement with the rest of the population.

From Mt. Fuji we fly back down South, hitting the coastal defense road to Fuji City before a hilarious detour up a mountain pass. There are a whole load of highways I could give you to avoid, but let’s just say that the ‘1’ tops that list and therefore dragging a fully loaded bike up a mountain in plastic-soled bike shoes is preferable…

After meandering our way down to Cape Irago and free camping en route to Kyoto, we take a couple of days to explore the city, which is a real dream for casual cyclists – laid out on a grid, it’s almost entirely flat and all the highways have dedicated cycle lanes on the wide pavements that run alongside. There’s also barely any bike theft – we see beautiful NJS track bikes secured with little more than a shoelace.

The final part of our journey is one we’ve looked forward to throughout our trip, even though we know it signals our adventure coming to an end. The Shiminami Kaido is a 70km cycle route linking the cities of Onomichi and Imbari hopping across islands in the Seto Sea on the way. Much of the route is on dedicated cycle lanes, which are wide, smooth and clearly signposted, and all of the six bridges have special traffic-free access roads. Strung high above the ocean, the view from the bridges is stunning. At least I think it is – I rather struggle with vertigo so spend a fair time with my head down.

Though I’m scared of the bridges, we ride back and forth over several of them and take the scenic route around all of the islands, trying to postpone the end of our journey. Cycling round the islands, we pass beach after beautiful beach, deep turquoise water giving way to sparkling clarity near the shore.

Nearing the end of May, it’s very hot and we’re dripping with sweat, and filthy, a state we’ve become accustomed to over the course of the trip. Blinded by our lust for cycling, it’s only on the last day that we do something we could have (and maybe should have) done earlier – we finally jump in the soft, cool ocean, take a deep breath, and stop pedaling for a moment. Though I won’t be swopping my cycle touring break for a beach holiday any time soon, I have to say it’s heaven.

Pictures by Dave Noakes

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