When I think about Japan, descriptions like “polite”, “clean”, “punctual”, “neon”, “awesome toilets”, “sumo” and possibly “keirin” come to mind. I’ve always known there’s a deep-seated cycling culture there somewhere, but “cycling” isn’t a word that’s immediately apparent. But after a week of cycling around the Seto Inland Sea and Hiroshima in the south west of Japan, those perceptions of changed.
I’d only been to Japan once before this trip and that was a few years back. It was there for work and I didn’t see the outside of the office. That’s not totally true. I went out to get a snack once before an 11pm meeting and came back with what I thought was a softdrink and biscuits. It turned out to be dog food and beer.
The more I experience and learn about Japan, the more I realise how I haven’t even scratched the surface. As familiar as Japan seems through pop culture and history, it’s perhaps one of the most “different” places on Earth that I’ve visited. They simply have their own thing going on.
It all started when the Japan Tourism Board got in contact with us wanting to promote the upcoming Shimanami Cycling Festival in October. But as these thing go, it’s kinda hard for us to genuinely promote something that hasn’t happened yet. That’s when I said, “how about a Roadtrip!?”
I called my Saturday morning riding mates Danny and Paul, leave passes were negotiated, and plane tickets were booked. Roadtripping Japan was locked and loaded. After only a short trip north (by Australian standards) and with no jetlag, we could be in a completely different world (and season) in no time at all.
Ever since the day I moved to Australia Danny and Paul have been a part of my core group of riding mates. Danny’s life revolves around his next ride and his next load of laundry. The man was meant to be Japanese. Punctual, conservative, anal retentive, quirky. Danny’s role on this trip was to look good, his encyclopaedia of movie one-liners, and carry all the camera gear. Something needed to slow him down on the climbs…
Paul is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He’s climbed Everest twice (well, only summited once, but we won’t talk about those final 100m on his first attempt) and didn’t even wear a jacket. He says he runs his own business (but nobody has ever seen him work) and everything he touches turns to gold. Paul’s duty on this trip was to help with planning and making sure we didn’t get lost. If those tasks were left to Danny and I, we wouldn’t make it out of the airport.
Knowing how incredibly different Japan is, I knew I needed to plan our itinerary down to the minute. We had lots of riding to do in only a week and I didn’t want a moment to be lost or for us to wake up wondering what we were doing each day.
Where to start? Well, I started by asking my many contacts in Japan about the riding in the Hiroshima Prefecture. “Why would you ride around Hiroshima?” was the unanimous response. I was pointed in the direction of Mt. Fuji, Kyoto, Nagano, Osaka. Expectations began at zero and many contingency plans were made just in case we came back with nothing.
A ten-hour red-eye flight got us into Tokyo and despite the uncomfortable airline sleep we were wide awake with the energy of a city of 13 million people during rush hour.
“Aki had us strung out like we were coming into the bell lap. From then on, ‘akimov’ was his nickname”
Our first destination was the town of Onimichi which is the start of the Shimanami Kaido cycleway which traverses a group of connected islands via roads and staggering bridges. We took the high-speed train (Shinkansen) down to Onomichi which was to be the starting point for our journey.
We were greeted by Aki, who would be our friendly Japanese guide for the week. We checked into the Onomichi U2 Cycle Hotel which was an unexpected surprise. The building is a 70-year-old shipyard warehouse which was beautifully renovated and opened in March. In it was a Giant bike shop, bakery, bar, restaurant, and of course hotel rooms specifically designed for cyclists. Inside were bike racks, workstands to assemble your bike, footpumps, in-suite bike hangers, laundry (to Danny’s delight) and everything else needed to make a cyclist feel at home.
While Danny, Paul and I unpacked our bikes Aki was champing at the bit to take us out riding. No sleep, swollen cankles, and too much junkfood; a light ride in the sunshine just might be the perfect thing to loosen up the legs and get into the spirit of our roadtrip.
I don’t think it was much more than ten minutes into the ride that my heartrate was at 180bpm and Aki had Danny, Paul and myself strung out like we were coming into the bell lap of a crit. Aki was on a timeline and needed to get us to this spectacular climb we wanted to visit and back safely before sundown. This apparently meant that we needed to average 45km/hr! From then on in our trip, Aki earned the nickname “Akimov” (after legendary hardman Viatcheslav Ekimov).
We followed the Shimanami cycleway around Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, exploring a rustic side of Japan as we rode over spectacular suspension bridges with beautiful ocean views that would be icons of most cities in the world. Here, these feats of enginnering are commonplace. In fact, the cycleway boasts the world’s longest series of suspension bridges as well as the longest suspension bridge in the world (by length).
From Onomichi we hopped from island to island, all of which seemed to be conservative places where much of the old Japan remains. There probably isn’t much of a reason for tourists to visit these areas, but fortunately the bike often brings us to places we’d otherwise never have a reason to go.
The Shimanami cycleway is impressively set up for cyclists. Having a map is often a good idea when riding unfamiliar roads, but this entire route was marked by a blue line painted on the road wherever it wasn’t obvious. The odd time we saw a vehicle, they always gave more than enough room when passing. It felt extremely safe.
At each bridge was a toll where you toss a ticket (each costing approximately 50-yen or 100-yen) into a basket. Paul, Danny and myself found it curious that it was simply an honour system without anything holding you back if you didn’t want to pay. But if you know the Japanese, the honour system goes much much further than it would in most western countries.
As we made our way along the cycleway, we started to feel like we wanted to discover something different. Big bridges and bike paths were good, but we wanted to get off the beaten path and explore. Lucky for us, Akimov knew exactly where to take us.
Instead of going the more travelled path to Imabari we headed west towards Kure and ventured to roads, villages and mountains that not many other cycling tourists would have seen. Akimov drove the pace through historic towns that were hundreds of years old, pathways that traversed the edges of mountains, and coastline roads that hugged the inland sea. It was one of the most memorable days on a bike in my life. Paul, Danny and I looked at each other in awe at every corner.
I’ve never been to Italy’s Cinque Terra, but Paul has and he was astonished at how much the mountain roads here shared with some the agricultural areas you pass through when walking the Cinque Terra. Terraced land plunging into the sea, small trolleys on a single metal track used to collect the harvest and small villages nestled into the base of the hills.
It was beginning to get dark and we finished the ride just short of Hiroshima where we were aiming. We got transport to our hotel and called it a day.
Our ride from Onomichi to Kure was perhaps a bit unrealistic for regular visitors as it was a one-way trip and the Tourism Board had our luggage transported to our hotel in Hiroshima. But courier services are extremely well set up and affordable in Japan and shipping your luggage to your hotel on the other side is a good option.
That night we went to a Japanese-Korean style barbecue which would have been an outstanding meal in its own right, but after the long day on the bike and trying to follow Amimov’s wheel for hours on end, it may have been the best meal I’ve ever tasted. Yes, I say that all the time, but this time I really mean it. The amount I ate was surely proof of that.
Our ride to Nukui Dam was one of our contingency plans in case the Shimanami cycle way didn’t deliver what we had hoped. However, if we just put our legs up and didn’t touch our bikes for the rest of the trip, it would have still been a successful trip.
But we wanted more. Paul cleverly discovered this route by looking at the Strava heatmaps of the area, and judging by topographical maps, Google Street View, and the popularity of Strava routes, this was going to be one hell of a good ride. This was also Akimov’s stomping ground and he knew the roads well.
We got rolling and the legs were heavy. The sensation was accentuated by starting on a gradual 40km ascent which didn’t look like we were climbing.
Just like the previous day, we encountered a wide range of terrain in a relatively small area. We made our way to the top of a ski field through a narrow forest road that we would have never found a few years earlier without the tools we have today. But still, technology will ever beat local knowledge and Akimov was our saviour.
An example of the invaluable local knowledge Aki brought was when he took us to the top of a climb that seemed to be slightly off the route we had set. The road ended and Aki hopped off his bike and began walking up a steep grassy hill that was about 300m in elevation. Paul, Danny and I looked at each other, cringed and shook our heads. We (well, mostly Paul, the man who’s climbed Everest) protested to turn back but Aki wouldn’t have a word of it and just kept walking.
We had no other option but to follow and when we reached the top we understood when Aki was so insistent. The views were magnificent but it was still no place for a carbon road bikes.
Aki took a quick view and kept walking down the other side towards what looked like some singletrack below. We still wondered what the hell we were doing here. When we got to where Aki was taking us, to our amazement, it was paved singletrack. I’d never seen anything like it! We were smack bang in the middle of nowhere, and the next thing we knew we were riding singletrack that mountainbikers could only pray for, but on our roadbikes. On bitumen. Only in Japan…
We would never question Aki’s judgement again.
Back to the hotel after another “most memorable days of riding in my life” we headed straight back to the same Korean BBQ joint, this time without our generous guide or hosts. It’s a miracle we found it again. Fortunately the restaurant staff recognised our appetites and didn’t need to endure to our sign language to know what we wanted. Once again, I set a new record for the amount of beef eaten in a single sitting.
After two solid days of riding that blew away our expectations, we unanimously decided that we didn’t need to rush out of Hiroshima and engage our contingency plans. We had planned on going to Kyoto to discover the riding there, but it would have been rushed and there was absolutely no need.
Instead we decided to spend some time in Hiroshima, a city best known, of course, for being devastated by an atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. It would have been a shame to leave Hiroshima without visiting the Peace Park Memorial Museum, a building dedicated to both documenting that moment in history and striving for world peace. The museum was a confronting display of what humankind can “achieve” and the bombing was very well documented and preserved as a lesson to ensure that it will never happen again.
I’ve always known that there’s no better way to experience and discover a country than by bike and our trip to Japan highlighted this once again. The bike took us to parts of Japan we’d never otherwise consider going and made us some friends along the way.
Now when I think of words to describe Japan, “cyclist’s playground” will certainly be on the list.
I’ve often said that expectations are the cause of life’s disappointments and amazements. If you can travel with no expectations, no experience can fall short. It was a blessing that we began our journey with no expectations which all
Tips for travelling in Japan for cycling:
– Transferring between train staions can involve a lot of walking so getting a bus from the city to the airport with a bike can be easier than the train. We did it both ways and can attest to the bus being easiest while taking the same amount of time. Go to www.limousinebus.co.jp for more information.
– A Japan Rail pass costs $299 AUD for unlimited travel in a week around much of Japan. You can’t buy them in Japan though – they’re only for tourists so you’ll need to buy them abroad. Click here to find out more.
– Japan Rail passes are good if you are going to travel around a lot, but if you are just going to be doing one trip, then it might be better to just buy tickets on the day. The trains you can use on the pass are very good, but you can’t use express trains.
– Bring food for the Shinkansen journey as there isn’t much available once you’re on the train.
– Download a free Tokyo Metro subway app for your phone here.
– For a cheesy awesome good time in Tokyo, try out the Ninja Restaurant Akasaka.
– Activating a pre-paid SIM card can be difficult if you purchase it in Japan (you need someone with an address and existing account to activate it for you). Pre order SIM cards through this site and have it delivered to the airport post office. It’ll be there waiting for you when you arrive.
– Courier services are excellent and affordable in Japan, so if you want to ship goods to the airport to hold onto while you’re travelling, ask your hotel to take care of this for you.
– You need cash to pay for most small purchases like food, train passes, entertainment, etc. Most ATMs don’t use Cirrus or Plus network, so you’ll need to get cash at a Citibank ATM at the airport, 7 Eleven (higher fees) or apost office.
Okonomiyaki of Hassho in the 10-6 Yagenbori,Naka-ku RT @cyclingtips: Anyone have any suggestions for a good place for dinner in Hiroshima?
— ???? (@hideji76) May 31, 2014