Canadian Cycling Magazine
Big Bikepacking in Japan
Long climbs, lavender fields and many random acts of kindness
“Wait,” he said and pointed to the 7-Eleven store. At least, I assumed he said wait – I don’t speak Japanese. I tried to tell him I was fine. Duct tape had kept my back tire together for about 60 km.
Now, I was walking the final 7 km to my hostel in Kanazawa, on the central west side of Japan. The duct tape had finally failed and my tire, which had split, was now flopping loosely on my rim. I could manage, but he insisted. “Wait.” He returned in a van with a used tire and tube. Bowing my head in thanks, I watched as he worked on my wheel. After a couple of minutes, he was done. He wiped his hands, gave me a clean towel to wipe my face, and then handed me 1,000 yen (about $10) and pointed to the 7-Eleven: “Beer.” I’m in tears and speechless; I tried returning the money. He left, smiling and waving. Sipping a can of Sapporo on the curb I wondered: did this really happen?
After cycling and camping alone in Japan for almost three months, this day stands out, but that’s not to say kindness didn’t follow me throughout the country. Japanese respect is pervasive. And safety in Japan? If you left your bike in the street, someone would try to find you.
I hadn’t done a bikepacking trip like this since my early 20s when I rode from Holland to Spain in 1996. Lots had changed, especially technology. For six months before my trip in Japan, I planned out detailed routes on mapmyride. com with grand plans to cycle the entire length of the country – roughly 3,000 km. I also used the Strava heat maps to verify that my choices are used by other cyclists.
Leaving Fukuoka, the main city in Kyushu, Japan’s large southern island, I headed farther south to the tiny villages of Arita and Imari. A glimpse of a flared roof revealed a town’s castle. “How do you like Japan?” asked the tea shop owner, who then gave me a clay pot. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had no room. I’d eventually mail home my front panniers full of gifts – including a fulllength kimono from a family that took me in for a night.
Kyushu felt like a tropical island. Cycling past wooden
fishing shacks and wharves, sometimes the ocean spray spritzed my hot face. I recall flipping open my front handlebar bag with one hand, grabbing my sunscreen, and slathering it on. This bag became my favourite accessory, full of tools, zip ties and mochi, gelatinous rice patties with sweet bean fillings. By mid-afternoon, I was scorched. Leaning my bike against a metal guardrail, I hopped over and sprinted into the ocean. Drying out on a rock, salty and refreshed, I was giddy.
Days later, after a few hundred kilometres riding along the coastline, I cycled inland along hairpin turns in a dark deciduous forest. I started a 1,036-m climb to the Unzen hot springs. Two hours climbing and the peak was still elusive. I stopped a car: “Unzen?” I pointed ahead. They nodded their heads: “Yes. Unzen.” I would ride another hour in my lowest gear, plodding up the massive climb. Eventually, I smelled sulfur: I was almost done. Cresting the peak, swirls of smoke billowed from the moon-like landscape revealing a town of hot springs. Through the fog, like a spaceship landing, a vending machine appeared. Japan has more than 3,000 hot-spring resorts and more glorious vending machines that appear out of nowhere.
That night, I had my first onzen experience. Naked, I pulled back the rice paper door. Two elderly Japanese women smiled and motioned for me to wash everywhere. I complied, then eased into the steaming, almost-too-hot, water. This became my post-ride ritual.
It was also about this time that I made the type of drastic decision that only solo travellers can: I ditched my plan to ride the entire country. Instead, I would let the route and people dictate where I’d go. And according to those in the know, I had to do the Kaido.
The Shimanamikaidō, a 70-km cycling route, is a series of six island-hopping bridges connecting Shikoku Island to mainland Honshu.
Bridge after bridge, with separate ramps just for bikes, spiralling up, every pedal stroke revealed a larger view of the dragon-like suspension bridge straddling the sea. One of the bike paths actually goes under a bridge, cars passing overhead. And bikepackers love the route. I’d always stop when I saw one, exchange Instagram handles, compare cycling routes, then hug.
I stopped for lemon ice cream, and swims along the way.
The road eventually ended at the water’s edge. The end? I waited with some locals. Aha, a ferry. For about $1.50, the two-minute ride dropped me off at Onomichi, the end of the Kaidō. I slept that night on a woven mat in a traditional ryokan inn built on the mountainside. Before bed, I sipped sweet plum wine gazing at the mountainside covered by the twinkling lights of the small homes. This was the Japan I had envisioned all my life.
By the time I finally arrived on mainland Honshu, with 1,000 km under my belt, I was getting sick of riding. Time for some culture. In Kobe, I snacked on juicy beef kabobs at a Beatles bar. In Kyoto, I hiked to a Shinto shrine. My favourite offbike detour: in Tokyo, I danced with millennials at a techno bar.
To avoid Tokyo’s heat wave and rainy season, I flew north to Hokkaido. With its wide-open spaces, blue caldera lakes and alpine flowers, Japan’s northern prefecture feels more like Montana than Japan. And, thankfully, it was full of bikepackers.
I found Anna from Austria on a Facebook group. We became fast friends over a bowl of Sapporo’s famous curry soup: roasted squash, zucchini, okra and mushrooms with noodles and heavenly spices.
At 26, she’s the same age as I was when I first bikepacked, and just as prepared. She bought a bike a few days earlier, attaching gear to it with hook-and-loop straps and bungee cords. For a week, we felt like the only two people on the planet riding alongside forests, fields of lavender, and abandoned malls with trees growing through the pavement. And she was companionship. Cycling through the terrifying dark tunnels with barely a shoulder, we stayed close when passing trucks shook our bikes and nerves.
For a month, Anna and I, among a handful of other cyclists, separated and reunited. We camped on the
shores of Lake Kussharo, the largest caldera lake in Japan; we slept at a rider house (motorcycle hostel) with its creepy cobwebbed kitchenette and stray cats; and we even cycled through a rainstorm over the 740-m Shiretoko Pass that crosses the island’s eastern peninsula. On a clear day, Russian islands are visible. But not this day. Instead, Ivan from England followed behind me slowly, his head tucked in, shielding himself from the slanted cold rain.
At the peak, we met a Korean cyclist who didn’t speak English. Posing for a misty selfie, grinning stupidly with our arms wrapped around one another, we didn’t need words or sunshine. Moments later, on the descent, I could smell the sulfur. Onzen. After a steamy bath, I got into my sleeping bag, and fell asleep to the sound of rain on the roof.